The near capacity crowd expected to see a lot of highlights in today's game. They knew the Illini offense was dangerous, and that Michigan's defense was much better than last year. Some waited to see an Illinois upset. What the two teams knew that many in the crowd didn't was that Michigan hasn't lost a conference opener since 1981, and that the Illini hasn't won a conference opener since 1993.
The Wolverines struggled on offense early, but that was due to the Illini lining up different defensively. You've heard of "eight men in the box." It was more like ten or eleven. They rushed and rushed the passer sacking Navarre five times. The Michigan coaches were surprised, but by the end of the quarter they realized, that if they were going to over-commit, the Wolverines were going to make them pay. It started with the Transcontinental.
It's a play that Michigan has used just once a year starting with Lloyd Carr's first game as head coach at Michigan. In Carr's seven years as coach, the play has worked three times. It worked very well against Wisconsin in 1997 and against Penn State in 1999.
The 51 yard play set up a halfback pass from Walter Cross to Marquise Walker for a 21 yd touchdown score. Clearly this changed the momentum of the game. I think Walker and Cross each had more passing yds than Navarre did.
The clincher came in the second quarter. Illinois couldn't convert on fourth and inches on their own 33 yd line. Michigan followed on the next play with a John Navarre touchdown pass to Ronald Bellamy. The pass was up for grabs, but Bellamy outleaped the Illinois defender to haul it in. It reminded me of last year's game winner against Wisconsin when David Terrell outleaped Jamar Fletcher.
Illinois seemed to concede the game early in the fourth quarter. Trailing by three scores the Illini decided to punt on fourth down with the ball inside Michigan territory. After scoring to make it 38-19, Illinois didn't even bother going for two.
Unlike last week, the crowd was ready for some football. They were vocal and excited. It was just too bad that some people across the aisle wearing the Maize and Blue kept dogging John Navarre, and Todd Howard. Navarre didn't have a lot of time, and he learned to step up in the pocket and avoid the sack in the 2nd quarter. As for Howard, if there was anyone better, they would be playing. I did notice however, that he didn't play much in the fourth quarter.
Michigan played the game very physically. Hayden Epstein wasn't supposed to kick-off because they didn't want him to have to tackle. On the opening kick-off he put his shoulder down and made a heck of a hit.
The defense, who gave up many big plays in Champaign, only gave up two and looked better than they did against Western Michigan. The Illini also dropped several passes. It reminded me of the Purdue game in 1999. Illinois QB Kurt Kitner coming into the games was 51-71 for over 600 yds, six touchdowns and no Int's. Today, he threw for just over 50% without a touchdown pass and was sacked three times. Cato June had two of those sacks.
The bottom line is that Michigan has seven more conference games to go, and will likely lose any Big Ten tie-breakers against Northwestern, but Michigan dominated in what was probably their toughest home game of the season.