Michigan vs. Illinois Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field, Saturday. Know your opponent with the Illinois Primer.

Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.

#21 Michigan (7-2) vs. Illinois (6-3)

Michigan Schedule:
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) San Diego State 28-7
(W) Minnesota 58-0
(W) at Northwestern 41-21
(L) at Michigan State 14-28
(W) Purdue 36-14
(L) at Iowa 16-24

Illinois Schedule
(W) Arkansas State 33-15
(W) South Dakota State 56-3
(W) Arizona State 17-14
(W) Western Michigan 23-20
(W) Northwestern 38-35
(W) at Indiana 41-20
(L) Ohio State 7-17
(L) at Purdue 14-21
( L) at Penn State 7-10

Illinois Players to Watch:
QB Nate Scheelhaase (So. #2) 3rd in Big Ten in pass effic. and in passing yds in conf games (210.0)
RB Jason Ford (Sr. #21) Tied for 2nd in career rush TDs in UI history (25); record is 31
WR A.J. Jenkins (Sr. #8) The only 1,000 yd receiver in the Big Ten
DL Whitney Mercilus (Jr. #85) Leads the nation in sacks (11 ½) and forced fumbles (6)

Those looking for an on-field/off-field drama with a polarizing figure at head coach can move to Champaign, Illinois. Head Coach Ron Zook wore out his welcome a long time ago and has been on and off the coaches ‘hot seat’ for years. Other than 2007, when Zook beat #1 Ohio State in Columbus and took his team to the Rose Bowl, most of the fans have been reluctant to join the bandwagon when they had success. They were also the first to get off as soon as they sniffed trouble.

With a 6-0 start to the season, analysts from the Big Ten Network and ESPN declaring them the 2nd best team in the conference, the players themselves talked openly about being better than Wisconsin and how they were going to play in a BCS bowl. Many fans though didn’t like the series of three-point wins at home especially to Northwestern and Western Michigan. Their fans don’t simply trust their coach who has made a number of head scratching decisions during his seven-year tenure, now the 2nd longest in the conference behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

Zook’s job was really only in jeopardy after the 2009 season, but in a show of administrative support, he was allowed to hire two new coordinators in O.C. Paul Petrino and D.C. Vic Koenning. Both were home runs.

 Any casual observer could see that the offense was steadily improving despite starting a freshman quarterback, Nate Scheelhaase (So. #2). Scheelhaase evolved from being a purely running quarterback to a passing threat in just a half season. By the end of the year, the 2010 Illini broke school records for points scored (423) and points per game (32.54). Through the first six games this season that number went up to 34.67.

Defensively, under Koenning, the Illini improved over 50 spots in total defense rankings. Promising players like Martez Wilson finally shined and other stars like Corey Liuget emerged. Losing them both to the NFL early deflated pre-season expectations, but Koenning’s s defense still ranks among the conference’s best with new leaders. The Illini are #2 in total defense and #1 in rush defense.

The Illini are in the midst of a three game losing streak right after achieving their best start (6-0) since the 1951 National Championship team. The downward trend could continue. With Wisconsin to follow, this seems like a must-win to avoid a five game losing streak. In addition, the recent recruiting rankings for 2012 are not nearly as high in years past. According to Scout.com, Illinois has only nine verbal commitments with only two four-star players since the class of 2009. The A.D. that hired Zook is no longer there and the new A.D. Mike Thomas is evaluating Illinois football very closely.

The Illini Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
Illinois has a dynamic offense according to Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

“They can run the option. The quarterback is very athletic. They can also throw it and they can also run power offense. I mean, it’s like four different offenses that they’ve done and been very successful with at times in games.”

Scheelhaase’s passing yards and efficiency rating is exactly one notch below Iowa’s James Vandenberg. While Vandenberg is a classic pocket passer, Scheelhaase has been very good at extending the play and either throwing the ball on the run or tucking it in and running. Scheelhaase leads the team in rushing yards and attempts. So far, Michigan hasn’t been victimized by a dual threat quarterback this season with Northwestern’s Dan Persa coming the closest. Last year, Scheelhaase threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 101 yards and another score in Ann Arbor.

His favorite target is A.J. Jenkins (Sr. #8), who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game and is 8th nationally. He is clearly one of the three premier wide receivers in the Big 10 and Michigan has the experience of covering the other two, MSU’s B.J. Cunningham and Iowa’s Marvin McNutt, both on the road. Neither had outstanding performances, but they weren’t shutdown.

McNutt got his average but the return of number two receiver Keenan Davis from injury helped free McNutt up. The same scenario could repeat Saturday. After missing four games to a foot injury, Darius Millines (So. #15) returned at Penn State. He had one catch for minus 6 yards, but Millines wasn’t 100%. After having two weeks to recuperate, he should be ready. At the very least, he’ll make the Michigan back seven play honestly and not allow them to gang up totally on Jenkins.

Illinois isn’t devoid of running talent, but the chemistry and results aren’t where they should be since the departure of Mikel Leshoure to the Detroit Lions this spring. They tried a trio of backs to share the load, but recently, Coach Zook went public to declare that Jason Ford (Sr. #21) was going to be their featured back despite Troy Pollard’s (Sr. #28) 9.0 average per carry (at the time). Zook made good on that promise by giving him the ball 24 times for 100 yards in the loss at Penn State and continued to state that promise earlier this week.

“He's fresh and I don't think there's any question there,” said Zook. “And as I told him last week, we're going to saddle him up and ride him.”

The Wolverines now have an advantage of focusing on one back, but hopefully the coaching staff, which claim they don’t watch a lot of last year’s film, also goes back to see how damaging the wheel route was for Illinois. The Illini scored a pair of touchdowns off missed assignments in Ann Arbor, and you can’t be surprised if they go to that again or look at other plays that worked.

They are a very very athletic offense,” says Mattison. “They’re one of those offenses that will really test this defense because they can get on the perimeter, which you know hasn’t been great for us throughout the year.”

It’s an honest assessment, but the offensive production for Illinois has certainly been diminished during the losing streak and is a big concern for them. Only 28 pts has been scored in the last three games, none in the first half, and 14 of those points were meaningless fourth quarter points at Purdue when the defense was allowing points in exchange for taking time off the clock.

Some see it as defenders keying on Jenkins, while others focus on the line who are not performing to expectations. Tackle Jeff Allen (Sr. #71) and Center Graham Pocic (Jr. #76) both could wind up with Big Ten honors, but the team may be missing Corey Lewis (Jr. #70). He’s been out with an ACL injury since spring practice in 2010, but there is an outside chance he may return for this game. Also questionable for this game is guard Hugh Thornton (Jr. #72) with a potential MCL tear.

Having a week off to focus on fundamentals did wonders for Michigan at home against Purdue. Will it have the same effect for Illinois? Zook thinks so.

“I think we are, you know, a refreshed football team… - I think they needed it.”

The Illini Defense vs. the Michigan Offense
No one is pointing the finger at the defense during Illinois’s three game losing streak. They’ve given up only 16 ppg during that period.
Reporters all this week have been asking questions about giving up 67 pts last year and it’s clear the coaches and players are very motivated to correct that.

"If anybody in this room has seen a defense play harder, I'll kiss their butt and give them 10 minutes to draw a crowd," said Koenning.
It’s also clear they’re a bit weary of talking about it or reading about it, especially the irony that the 65 pts they scored against Michigan was a Wolverines’ opponent record, but they still lost.

Koenning is obviously spending a lot of time looking at all the different formations and plays that Al Borges has thrown on film; a point that Borges wants all D.C.’s to do. Watch him on video at the UI website and he looks worn down. Interesting to note that he feels Michigan’s offensive line is the best part of the offense. It wasn’t meant to be a back-handed compliment.

Michigan’s O-Line will be tested by a tandem of defenders that get behind the line of scrimmage and make plays. Whitney Mercilus (Jr. #85) leads the nation in sacks (11 ½) and has six forced fumbles. He’ll receive strong consideration for the Nagurski-Woodson trophy as the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. Michael Buchanan (Jr. #99) is tied for 2nd in the Big 10 in sacks (6) and along with Jonathan Brown (So. #45) should be paying rent for living in the opponent’s backfield (11 ½ TFL’s).

The team has nearly twice as many sacks as Michigan (31-17) and has 27 more tackles-for-loss (72-45), yet Michigan has given up less points and that’s the most important statistic.

Obviously, defensive pressure takes Denard Robinson (Jr. #16) out of his rhythm. It forces him to make off-balanced throws and creates turnovers. It’s imperative that the line makes Robinson comfortable, and in turn, Robinson has to remember his mechanics, his reads, and remember the hot receiver when the pressure comes.

Illinois leads the conference in holding the opposition on 3rd down, so Michigan can’t afford to make mental mistakes typical of being on the road, if they don’t want to give up the ball.

Michigan secondary coach Curt Mallory was coaching the D-Backs at Illinois just a couple of seasons ago. Before the season started I asked him if that gives Michigan an advantage. He shook his head noting that even though it was recent, his former players are being coached by someone else and their maturity and experience makes them different players than when they were underclassmen.

Special teams haven’t been special for Illinois. Punts have been “unsuccessful” in each of the last two games. The Illini’s kick return punt return and kickoff coverage are the worst in the Big 10 and while Derek Dimke (Sr. #13) has missed only one field goal, he clanged it off the upright as time expired at Penn State that would have given them a chance in overtime. This is not Michigan’s strength either, but it would be nice to see the Michigan offense get good field position or for the Illini offense to earn their scores with long drives instead of short ones.

Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game:  Junior Hemmingway.
Hemmingway led the team in catches and receiving yards last week and Robinson will need to find him because Illinois will do everything they can to shut down Michigan’s running game.

Most Likely Fighting Illini You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Jason Ford.
Last week I should have picked the sideline judge. Oh well. Ford has scored at least one touchdown in each Michigan game. As the lead back expected to carry the load, he’ll represent the Illini effort despite the talents of Jenkins.


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