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.

#25Michigan (3-2) (1-0) vs. Illinois (2-4) (0-2)

Michigan Schedule:
(L) Alabama (in Dallas Tx) 41-14
(W) Air Force 31-25 
(W) UMASS 63-13
(L) at Notre Dame 13-6
(W) at Purdue 44- 13

Illinois Schedule
(W) Western Michigan 24-7
(L) at Arizona State 45-14
(W) Charleston Southern 44-0
(L) Louisiana Tech 52-24
(L) Penn State 35-7
(L) at Wisconsin 31-14

Illinois Players to Watch:
QB Nate Scheelhaase (Jr. #2) 3rd year starter who’s improving after an early season ankle injury
WR Ryan Lankford (Jr. #12) leads the Illini with 25 receptions for 362 yards and five TDs.
DE Michael Buchanan (Sr. #99) NFL prospect; leads the nations in passes defended for a D-Lineman (6)
LB Jonathan Brown (Jr. #45) NFL prospect; leads team with 6.5 TFL’s; on five national award watch-lists.
CB Terry Hawthorne (Sr. #1) NFL prospect; status TBD after a series of concussion tests

What a win means for Michigan:  Win #899; optimism could be at a season high right before playing Michigan State next week; three wins in a row vs. Illinois; Brady Hoke would be 8-2 in conference play at Michigan.

What a win means for Illinois:  It could turnaround the momentum of a team heading towards a cliff not unlike 2011; it would snap a three game losing streak; it would snap an eight came conference losing streak; it would be a third win over Michigan in five years; 3-4-1 in Ann Arbor since 1992.

What Illinois Brags About:  Five first round draft picks in five years, the most of any Big Ten team in that span; claims to have faced the toughest non-conference schedule since 2002; Illinois’ 65 points in 2010 are the most any team has ever scored against Michigan.

Observation: Are they the worst team in the Big Ten right now? At 2-4, the Illini have the worst record in the conference, rank last in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) and defense (28.3), while Indiana has seriously looked better by giving Northwestern and Michigan State a competitive game.

Tim Beckman

The blame game is circulating in Champaign-Urbana. There are several indictments that include former coach Ron Zook, who left the cupboard bare. The defense has (had) four potential NFL players but what about the offense? Can you name a player other than the starting QB? Even an uberrecruiter like Ron Zook can have problems when high school seniors can feel the heat from Zook’s seat a thousand miles away.

There’s blame being cast on new athletic director Mike Thomas for hiring Tim Beckman as head coach. A local Illinois journalist, Paul Klee, called the hire “a disaster” last week.

The most has been reserved for Beckman who has only six games under his belt. It’s not the shortest honeymoon ever, but it sure feels like it has a post inebriated Vegas wedding vibe to it.

After the Wisconsin game Beckman revealed that the Illini haven’t been able to “finish” games adding, “this has been the problem, not just this year but for the last couple of years.”

So Beckman has called out his current team and ones from the past as well. Besides trailing by three points in the fourth quarter to Wisconsin, what other losses can Beckman cite as the team not ‘finishing’? Was it the 31 point loss to Arizona State? The 28 point losses to Penn State and Louisiana Tech? The last Illini loss by single digits was eight defeats ago in October of 2011.

If finishing is a discipline problem, who is responsible for that? Beckman would own up to it and say the coaches are responsible, but Beckman has another discipline problem, his own. Beckman was caught last week on television using chewing tobacco on the sideline during the game. That’s an NCAA no-no, something that Beckman knew and did anyway.

"That's a bad habit of mine," he said. "I apologize for that. I guess it's the stress. But there is no excuse for that. It will be stopped."

I thought this type of thing only happened in Columbus (see OSU linebackers coach Mike Vrabel).


Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (Sr. #1) had concussion tests this week; OT Hugh Thornton (Sr. #72) has a bad knee but should play; Safety Supo Sanni (Sr. #7) just came back from a knee injury only to injure his shoulder at Wisconsin; DL Tim Kynard (Jr. #59) left last week’s game on crutches. 

The Last Time They Met

The Michigan defense played its most complete game of the year in a 34-14 win. The Wolverines held the Illini to just 30 yards of offense in the first half and didn’t let them cross mid-field until midway through the 3rd quarter. Michigan also forced three Illini turnovers. After the game, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison nearly broke-up when declaring that his lads played a true “Michigan defense”.
The Illinois defense, who was allowing just over 100 yards rushing per game, let Fitz Toussaint (Jr. #28) go off for a career best 192 yards. Devin Gardner (Jr. #12) played most of the 2nd half at quarterback due to a Denard Robinson (Sr. #16) wrist injury.

It was the fourth straight loss for Illinois in what would become a six game losing streak to end the regular season. Michigan bounced back from a disappointing road loss at Iowa.

Last Week

The Fighting Illini lost 31-14. Illinois played inspired ball on the road for nearly three quarters. The defense held Wisconsin running back Montee Ball to 12 rushing yards in the first half. They only trailed 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. Ball would rush for 87 yards in the final 15 minutes, and the Badgers were on the threshold of scoring 28 more points before time mercifully expired.

"This football team is hurting," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "We have to be able to respond when something doesn't occur the way we want it to occur. It kind of snowballs on us and We have to learn to react in a positive way and keep on fighting for four quarters."

In addition to giving up 21 points in the decisive corner, Illinois gave up three touchdowns on three big plays of 62, 59, and 19 yards out.

Offensively Nate Scheelhaase (Jr. #2) was the offense for Illinois. He passed for 178 and rushed for 84. The ‘non-Nate’ rushing game contributed 22 yards rushing. Darius Millines (Jr. #15) led the receivers in catches (5) and yards (54).

Their Season So Far

While no one but the Illini themselves thought they would be able to contend for the Leaders Division, the season has been an early disappointment for everyone. The Illini have just one win over an FBS program (Western Michigan) and have lost four games by an average of 26 points. A team that was outspoken about its abilities on defense could hardly slow down Louisiana Tech let alone shut them down. There wasn’t much fight in the Illini for the conference opener vs. Penn State either. A player’s only meeting called by the seniors before last week’s Wisconsin game resulted in a more spirited team that ran out of steam in the fourth quarter.  Whether the team improves the rest of the way is more likely the result of the team being healthier rather than the players getting a renewed attitude.

Whether they like to admit it or not, the Illini don’t have the depth to recover from the number of injuries they have incurred this season. They haven’t been the season ending variety but many starters like Scheelhaase’s ankle injury have caused them to miss games and play well less than 100%. It appears at least eight valuable starters have missed time for a total of 22 games. Scheelhaase missed two games, Millines, their leading receiver coming into this season has also missed two games. Two starters on the offensive line have been out. Sanni has missed every game but one. They’re even without their starting kicker Nick Immekus (So. #37) after week two.

The Illini Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense

The identity of the Illinois offense is solely their quarterback as the team struggles to get healthy. Scheelhaase doesn’t have the weapons at running back and at receiver he had as an underclassman. Those positions are razor thin in 2012. So much that there was open discussion in the off season whether Hawthorne would do a Charles Woodson imitation and play receiver in addition to being the team’s starting cornerback. It may seem familiar, but Michigan does have more talent surrounding Robinson than Illinois has surrounding Scheelhaase.

Sheelhaase’s touchdown to interception ratio was 2:1, but this year he has only three touchdown passes and five interceptions. With the bad ankle, his rushing average has dropped from approx 57 ypg to 24.

Nate Scheelhaase

To this point opposing defenses have appeared to concentrate on the running backs in the Illini zone-read offense. Toussaint might have a sympathy party with Josh Ferguson (Rd-Fr. #6) and Donovan Young (So. #5) who have combined for 408 rushing yards  and just 16 yards last week for the Big Ten’s least producing unit. That may change if Scheelhaase gets healthier. Scheelhaase rushed for 84 yards against Wisconsin. If his rushing numbers continue to improve, that could eventually shift the focus from stopping the running back first to stopping the quarterback.

Having Millines return at receiver gave the offense a much needed lift. He was expected to be the team’s go-to receiver in the off season. Scheelhaase and Millines have only played two games together this season. Ryan Lankford (Jr. #12) is the team’s leading receiver (25 catches 362 yards) and scorer (5 TD’s).

The offensive line was a question mark coming into this season and so far it’s been a game of musical chairs. There have been a lot of substitutions and rotations including their team’s best lineman Graham Pocic (Jr. #76) moving from center to right tackle. LT Hugh Thornton (Jr. #72) was declared 100% earlier this week. That would reshuffle the line again at three positions, but perhaps for the better. For those curious in current events, RG Ted Karras (Rd-Fr. #69) is a grandnephew of the late Alex Karras.

This unit has given up a conference leading 20 sacks. To put it in perspective Nebraska is in 11th giving up 12 sacks. Michigan, who is tied for last in the Big Ten in generating sacks, may have an opportunity to pad their stats if Michigan can get a significant lead and force Illinois to play catch-up through the air.

“We’re going to have to give Nate time to throw the football,” said Beckman.

Beckman is considering adding an additional pass protector to give Scheelhaase time. Michigan’s defense showed last week that they were able to hold Purdue’s offense which features touches from a team full of people in a myriad of directions. Expect the same in Ann Arbor. Defending the zone read shouldn’t be a problem and it helps that the Illini are also the worst team in the red zone.

The Illini Defense vs. the Michigan Offense

Statistically, the Illini defense are average when you look at all the different components except in one category; they’re the worst in scoring (28.3) and that’s pretty much the trump card. If teams aren’t giving up a ton of yards and are winning the time of possession, turnovers by the offense and big plays by the defense are usually the culprits. The Badgers had three big scoring plays against the defense and that was enough to win.

Michael Buchanan

DE Michael Buchanan (Sr. #99) and DT Akeem Spence (Jr. #94) are NFL prospects but the unit hasn’t been impressive stopping the run. LB Jonathan Brown (Jr. #45) and Hawthorne are also NFL prospects and while they have made individual plays, the defense is struggling.

Former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, now at North Carolina, transformed the Illini defense in a single season in 2010 much the same way Greg Mattison has done for Michigan last season. It’s hard to improve a defense nearly 100 places in a 124 team FBS but both have. After two stellar defensive seasons, many of the current players wanted Koenning to be the new head coach. He didn’t and moved on. The players just haven’t responded yet to new defensive coordinator Tim Banks in the same way they embraced Koenning.

“I think the problem that this football team deals with, that we're getting corrected and that they understand is that we are trying to over-do things at times, instead of just doing what you’re supposed to do,” says Beckman.

Did they overpersue in the first 3 quarters to have success and then get burned by Wisconsin for that pursuit?

“I think defensively, if you look at the fourth quarter, there (were) a couple of plays that we tried to over-do what we where doing as a defense and that ended up costing us."

Michigan coaches have taken questions this week about whether Fitz may be benched. Both Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have mentioned that when you are in the shotgun and go zone-read, a defense has to pick who they’re going to stop and that it’s not likely both, adding that the O-Line has to do their job to ensure that just one of them would be successful.

“He (Toussaint) ran fine,” Borges said Tuesday. “For the opportunities he had to run, there just wasn’t much there, but there was a lot for Denard. Maybe the reverse could happen this week. I don’t know.”
The Illini defense, like Michigan, is prepared to defend the zone-read. It’s unlikely that Illinois will make the same mistake that Purdue made of trying to stop Toussaint first. Denard will call his own number often enough, but hopefully Fitz will give Michigan fans a sigh of relief with some production.

The Wolverines left some points on the field this week if you want to get highly critical and Hoke likes to do that to keep his players from being satisfied. The Wolverines attempted four field goals, making three of them. Surely the teams want to put more sevens on the board. That can happen if the offensive line can continue to pass protect and the receivers will likely be dealing with a short-handed secondary.

Special Teams

We don’t discuss it most weeks, but it needs to be pointed out Illinois has special teams issues as well. Back-up kicker Taylor Zalewski (Rd-Fr. #14) is 2-4 on FG’s this year while punter Justin Duvernois (So. #18) shanked a punt last week.

Most Likely Fighting Illini You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Nate Scheelhaase

He’s the catalyst for the offense, and though the four members of the defense are NFL caliber, none have stood out the way people expected. It’s unfair, but their success will depend on Scheelhaase and he needs some help.


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