Michigan vs. Illinois

The Big Ten race begins with Michigan playing at Illinois on Saturday. The two teams finished 1-2 in the conference race a year ago. Since then, Illinois has fallen on hard times. Coach Ron Turner wants to see his Illini play with more passion. The Wolverines' secondary will be tested by one of the nation's top corps of receivers.

From Illinois coach Ron Turner came a startling admission earlier this week. Turner said the Illini played over their heads at times last season during their fairy tale drive toward the Big Ten championship. Turner said the Illini won because of great team chemistry and great team leadership.

Those two elements have been missing in the first month this season, and Illinois enters Big Ten play with a 1-3 record and its collective back up against the wall. Turner challenged his seniors and his captains to step up this week in preparation for Saturday's game against Michigan (2:30 p.m. CDT/ABC-TV) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

So, look for the Illini to bring passion to the playing field, if not the same brand of ball that led to their 10-2 season. Kurt Kittner no longer is the team's quarterback and steady leader. Nor is Dustin Ward. He started in losses to Missouri and Southern Mississippi and was so unimpressive he lost his job.

Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer is the Illinois quarterback now. He has completed more than 60 percent of his passes and ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten with a QB rating of 155.8. Of course, he's put up those big numbers against Arkansas State and San Jose State. And the Illini lost to San Jose State 38-35 on a last-play field goal.

Beutjer has at his disposal a receiving corps that has been ranked among the nation's elite. Brandon Lloyd was arguably the Big Ten's MVP last season. Walter Young is a big target with good hands. Greg Lewis is a speedster.

To defend against big plays in the passing game, the Wolverines likely will mix up their coverages. They'll likely play some man-to-man and some zone. Look for cornerback Marlin Jackson to draw the assignment of sticking with Lloyd. Also, look for Michigan to put a heavy rush on Beutjer.

The Wolverines (3-1) lead the Big Ten with 17 sacks in four games. Nine different players have registered those sacks, so it's not like the Illini will be able to turn their attention toward blocking one guy. Michigan likely will be without defensive end Shantee Orr (knee injury). Look for Larry Stevens, Pierre Woods or Alain Kashama to start in his place. Stevens made three tackles, including one for a loss, and recovered a fumble in the Wolverines' loss at Notre Dame.

"If you look at the Big Ten Conference, the one thing you notice is they all have outstanding wide receivers," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "Illinois is one of them. The thing about Illinois that impresses me is they have four with experience that play.

"They have guys that have been in games and know what is expected of them. They have seen all the coverages and know how to stretch a defense. Beutjer is a really impressive guy, when you consider a guy that was on the basketball team at Iowa. I think he is an outstanding athlete that will get better and better as the season goes along."

Michigan, likewise, is looking to get better, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, especially scoring in the red zone. The Wolverines racked up a big statistical advantage in their 10-7 victory over Utah a week ago, yet failed to convert on numerous opportunities. Philip Brabbs missed 2 of 3 field goal attempts, and the Utes scored their lone touchdown on a big passing play.

"There are no easy solutions to any of those problems because in today's football when you are spread out and there are big playmakers on offense, it stresses a defense," Carr said. "People will look at tackling and say you didn't tackle well, but you need to look at how good the guy is that you are tackling.

"All of those areas are important for us to improve in because you are never going to be perfect. It is a game played by people and none of us are perfect, but we can strive for perfection and hope that we can reach excellence.

"Those are issues we are working on every week. Almost all of the great teams we have had here have struggled during the early part of the season because you are trying to come together with each other. You are striving to improve on a weekly basis."

Improvement in the placekicking game might not come until Carr pulls the plug on Brabbs and turns to punt specialist Adam Finley. He has been kicking field goals in practice. The question is whether his two injured knees will hold up under the stress.

As for Michigan's offense, the verdict is out on Terry Malone. He was named offensive coordinator in the offseason. He showed imagination in spreading the ball around as the Wolverines opened in impressive fashion with 31 points against Washington and 35 more against Western Michigan, both victories. Since then, Michigan has slipped back, in large part because of fumbles.

"It is really stressed," senior fullback B.J. Askew said of protecting the ball. "We changed that after the Notre Dame game. Everybody who carries the football has to run through the gauntlet. We do it for 10 minutes.

"In practice, we have the demonstration guys always reaching for the football. There are a lot of things we have changed to try to help the problem. I think we will get better as the season goes along. I know that when (Chris) Perry got back in (the Utah game in the second half) he was holding the ball. I do not think I will see another fumble out of him."

Quarterback John Navarre has performed well at times and miserably at others. He has completed 74 of 139 for 858 yards and seven touchdowns while throwing three interceptions. His mistakes are not to blame, though, for Michigan's one setback, only for a large amount of consternation in the stands.

"I did not hear it, but it bothered me when I read about it," Navarre said of fans booing him last week in the Big House. "I do not understand it. Fans have an opinion, and you are not going to change that.

"We are playing our game, we have our goals, we know what we want to accomplish, we know what we are doing and we know how we want to play. That is what counts."

Navarre has received good protection from his offensive line. The Wolverines will continue to mix the run and pass and will keep the Illini reeling as long as they convert on a higher percentage of their opportunities.

"Illinois, despite what they have been doing in the previous weeks, is a great team, and they have great players," junior tackle Tony Pape said. "All of their best players are back from last year. They are still going to be competitive, and they are still a great team."

The Illini have one victory over Michigan to show for the last six meetings, a 35-29 upset in Ann Arbor, and they have not won in Champaign since 1983. By day's end, the Michigan crowd will take over the stadium.

Kremer's call: Michigan 31, Illinois 20

Footnote: The Big Ten has posted a 31-13 (.705) record in non-conference play to date. The 31 victories is the most since 1905, and the .705 winning percentage is the higest since 1999. In games against teams ranked at the time of kickoff, the Big Ten is 3-3. By comparison, the Big East is 4-2, Pac-10 3-5, Big 12 2-7, ACC 1-2 and SEC 1-5.

The Big Ten's three wins over ranked opponents came vs. Washington, Washington State and Nebraska. All three losses were to Notre Dame.

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