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.
Michigan (5-3) at Illinois (1-6)
(W) Western Michigan 31-7
(W) Notre Dame 38-34
(W) Eastern Michigan 45-17
(W) Indiana 36-33
(L) at Michigan State 26-20 OT
(L) at Iowa 30-28
(W) Delaware State 63-6
(L) Penn State 35-10
Illinois Players to Watch:
At 1-6, with their only win coming against FCS Illinois State, the Fighting Illini are the Big 10's worst in scoring offense and scoring defense. Each game they lost, they did so by at least 10 points and have failed to score more than 17. It's a baffling story of how a team two years removed from the Rose Bowl and a big win against Michigan last season has fallen so far so quickly.
Last Year at Michigan Stadium
What happened to Michigan with Penn State last Saturday was very similar to what happened with Illinois last season at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines started out strong scoring first, but the Fighting Illini answered back taking the lead for good in the 2nd quarter and winning 45-20. Juice Williams (Sr. #7) tied the Michigan opponent's record for most yards gained by passing for 310 yards and rushing for 121 yards. Williams rushed for a pair of touchdowns and passed for two more including a 77 yarder to Jeff Cumberland (Sr. #17), their longest passing play in 23 years. Over the summer, the Illini figured to have two of the best five players in the Big 10. Williams was the Big 10's active career rushing leader and Arrelious Benn (Jr. #9), destined perhaps to be their best receiver ever or at least number two behind David Williams, a two-time All American in the mid 80's. Illinois even made a DVD over the summer and a website created called "7-to-9" featuring the QB-WR duo. The Illini would enter 2009 with virtually all their running backs returning and 87% of their yards made passing, in what was supposed to be a highly potent offense that many figured would be the best in the Big 10.
Instead it started with a Dud and a Thud. As a touchdown favorite, Illinois lost by four of them 37-9. Benn and running back Jason Ford (So. #21) missed the 2nd half and Daniel Dufrene (Sr. #22) missed the game, all with ankle injuries, but to score only nine points to a Missouri team not known for its defense was shocking.
After cruising to a 45-17 win over Illinois State, the Illini were shutout in Columbus 30-0. After three games, Williams had not rushed nor passed for a touchdown.
Williams finally hit the scoreboard in a 35-17 loss to Penn State, but he also lost his starting job to back-up quarterback Eddie McGee (Jr. #10). McGee didn't last long. He was benched in the third quarter after his first start, going 2-11 for 31 yards and a pick against Michigan State on Homecoming. Williams would get the start against Indiana, but the Illini were down 27-7 before a late score by Williams made it a 27-14 final.
Many of their playmakers have been out or banged up. A player like Benn, who has been struggling to stay healthy all season, would have an occasional great performance but would be wasted as others failed to deliver. During the process, it's been a Greek tragedy for the Fighting Illini and their fans but a comedy of errors offensively for the Illini opponents. They've had so many unbelievable moments this season, perhaps it should be sponsored.
(This Unbelievable Moment Brought to you by Stuckey's)
Against Missouri, it's 4th and 1. The Illini go for it. Williams appeared to have someone open alone down field; however, Williams would trip over the foot of his left guard and lose six yards.
(This Unbelievable Moment Brought to you by Enron)
Against Penn State at their 26 yard line, trailing only 7-3 near the half, Williams is called for intentional grounding. He ends up throwing a Hail Mary interception.
(This Unbelievable Moment Brought to you by TWA)
Against Indiana, inside their 10 yard line ready to go up 14-13, Williams fumbles and the Illini defense give up the touchdown making it 20-7, a 14 point turnaround in just a couple of minutes. On the next possession, Williams would fumble again and IU would score quickly again.
"Obviously, you can't have turnovers," Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook said. "I think he (Williams) did a couple good things, and he did a couple bad things. We're not getting the play out of him we gotta get. I'll be honest with you; I'm not sure exactly what we're going to do yet."
A week ago, two teams on similar paths that made their own bed on the field with turnovers and mistakes faced one another. The big difference was that Purdue, the previous week against Ohio State, stopped making the mistakes and the turnovers that plagued them after their only win in week 1. Purdue carried the positive momentum into a 24-14 victory. Illinois continued to shoot itself in the foot.
(This Unbelievable Moment Brought to you by the Commodore 64)
With first and goal at the Boilermaker 1 yd line, Illinois scored on the first play, but the touchdown was called back for holding. On fourth down, they missed the chip shot 23 yd field goal. No points. Another unbelievable moment for the Fighting Illini.
"We scored, so it comes back, and we missed the field goal," said Zook. "Those are things you can't have. We should have come out at least with a field goal. That could have made a difference in the game."
Illinois is expected to play two quarterbacks this week, Williams and redshirt Freshman, Jacob Charest (#12). He played some last week going 4-8 for 52 yards.
"The one thing that probably impressed me the most about him was his poise," Zook philosophized. "It's one thing to get in as a quarterback in kind of a mop-up action, but it's another thing to get in when there's a lot of pressure and things going on. The poise that he had, he handled himself in the huddle. I thought more importantly than that, was when things were all around him and he kept his eyes downfield. He didn't think about scrambling and he got the ball off. That's not as easy as a lot of people seem to think."
When Zook platooned Williams and McGee, defenses faced identical styles of spread option attack. Now things will be a bit different with Charest, who's a drop-back style passer.
"When you game plan against Juice and against Jacob (Charest) there's a little bit of difference," Zook said. "Now you actually are dealing with a little different animal."
On Wednesday, Rodriguez slightly disagreed.
"I think they are going to do what they do and I don't schematically they'll change it much at all. When Juice (Williams) is in there they'll run it more because of his ability to run. That certainly is what we expect."
Look for Charest to find his tight ends first. Of his three completions, last week three were to them. Meanwhile, Williams is being asked to watch a lot of last year's Michigan game in hopes that it will help his confidence. McGee is still playing, but now he's being featured at WR.
Benn is has been struggling with an ankle injury all season. A bad shoulder almost made him miss the Michigan State game three weeks ago. He leads the team with 287 receiving yards, but he's still seeking his first touchdown.
Running Back Mikel Lashoure (So. #5) has emerged averaging 7.4 ypc in the last two games. Lashoure is the fourth different running back to start for the Illini.
Defensively, Illinois has relied on someone like a J. Lehman or Brit Miller to come from nowhere to lead the defense at Linebacker. Martez Wilson, who was expected to lead, is out for the season due to injury, and really no one has stepped up. The Rush Defense is the worst in the Big 10 (101st nationally) as they are also the worst in sacks with only seven on the year. Zook has responded by plugging new and younger players, including true freshman, over the past couple of weeks.
"We have to tweak it," Zook said. "We have to keep mixing and matching, whatever we have to do to try to make something happen."
Michigan will still need to take shots downfield to keep defenses from creeping up further to the line of scrimmage. Keeping the Illini defense honest will help Michigan's Big 10 leading rushing game.
Really though, the story is Williams who has had made big mistakes at big times. Most teams have been playing Cover 2 to prevent the big play capability between Williams and his receivers. Ironically, those are his best throws. Williams is consistent with his short and intermediate throws. So most defenses play bend but don't break and wait for Williams and Illinois to have another Unbelievable Moment. If he does Saturday, Zook will likely go to Charest and quickly.
You can't help but be reminded of Michigan's game with Purdue last season. Converting from running back to quarterback just the week prior, Justin Siller was supposed to be a sitting duck against a Michigan defense desperately seeking confidence. Siller got his 15 minutes of fame and is no longer with the program.
History shouldn't repeat here, but at least it should serve as caution.
ENJOY THE GAME