#24 Michigan (7-2) vs. Illinois (6-3)
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
Forecast: High 50s, 10% chance of rain
Illinois 7 - #19 Penn State 10. Despite playing a Nittany Lion team that still can't find an offense, Illinois lost last week thanks to a missed field goal at the buzzer that would've sent the game into overtime. Illinois' defensive numbers were great but Penn State has a way of making all defenses look good. The Illini only allowed 209 yards, 2.7 YPC, and 3.5 YPA through the air. Penn State's offense is awful. In spite of that awful output, PSU running back Silas Redd still managed 4.6 YPC on 30 carries, so there's yard to be had against the Illinois defense.
What ultimately killed Illinois last week were turnovers, of which they had four: interceptions thrown by backup QB Reilly O'Toole and wide receiver Tim Russel, as well as two fumbles. Otherwise, they won every offensive category on the box score. (A sidenote: Penn State is going to be the worst team to win the Big Ten in at least 20 years.) Then again, starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase only threw the ball 16 times, connecting on 9 of them for 63 yards.
Offensively, this game set the Big Ten back a decade.
#15 Michigan 16 - Iowa 24. Game column. Michigan struggled to score against a mediocre Iowa defense and managed to screw up an extra-point attempt to set up a frantic game-theory debated fourth quarter. In the end, Michigan came three yards short of a potential tying touchdown despite all of the receiver drops, freshman mistakes, and I formation catastrophes. Regardless, this is a game that Michigan probably should have won.
Desmond Morgan came in for much chastising after failing to keep contain on multiple Iowa runs, but otherwise, the defense held up well. Against an admittedly mediocre offense, Michigan held Iowa to 302 total yards, including 3.7 YPC. They were even able to hold Mooseback Marcus Coker below his season average, albeit not significantly (4.6 YPC).
The offense, on the other hand, was... bad. Denard had another poor day, but that was aided by multiple drops from his receivers. On the ground, the team averaged only 3.4 YPC. And the offensive line had arguably their worst game of the year. Much of that was due to the coaching staff's insistence on calling plays from the I formation, but this is life for Michigan in 2011.
Offense vs. Illinois
This looks harrowing. In addition to the offense coming off one of their worst performances of the season, the Illinois defense has been very good this year. They currently rank 15th in rushing defense, 19th in pass efficiency defense, 6th in total defense, and 13th in scoring defense. Despite those terrifying numbers, they're almost identical to those of the Illinois defense last year before Michigan's epic triple overtime win (19th in total pass yardage, 26th against the rush, 12th scoring defense). Unfortunately, Michigan 2011 /= Michigan 2010, and the chances Michigan exposes the Illini defense this season are hovering around zero.
This year, the Illinois defense is led by defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who already has 44 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, and 11.5 sacks. He'll be matched up against Mark Huyge, which, if recent returns are to be believed, is going to be a big problem. A key to winning this game will be making sure Huyge always has help on Mercilus, whether that's a running back chipping him in the backfield or a tight end. Michigan will either have to option off of Mercilus or run away from him. My guess is the latter.
Illinois boasts and old, experienced defense and it shows. The one weakness is probably 260-lbs defensive tackle (!) Glenn Foster. If Michigan is going to run from the I formation, it's going to be specifically to attack Foster. Illinois, meanwhile, heeding Michigan's previous performances, will likely load the box and force Denard to throw the ball.
As for what Michigan can do to attack Illinois: I have no idea. Against Iowa, Michigan made a significant shift in playcalling:
A lot more under center in this game. I've got Michigan with 9 snaps in an ace formation, four in Denard jet, and 14 in I-Form. Michigan had 26 shotgun snaps in hurry-up time and 22 outside of it.At this point, I have no idea what Al Borges is going to call, though maybe that's the point. If Michigan stays under center in this game, they'll have to attack Illinois' suspect defensive tackles because Michigan has struggled to run outside the tackles and Mercilus will shut down anything in his direction.
Of Michigan's 49 snaps in their base offense, 22 were from the shotgun, a 45% rate. Big dropoff from before the bye week.
Through the air, it's another episode of Good Denard vs. Evil Denard. He showed improvement going through his reads against Iowa--except on his interception, in which he stared down Roundtree, randomly pump faked (that no one bought), and then threw the ball into triple coverage--but he still hasn't solved many of his accuracy problems.
Defense vs. Illinois
I would feel a lot worse about this situation if this game were earlier in the season and Michigan hadn't already played a triple option team (Northwestern). Since that time, Jake Ryan has shown significant improvement maintaining the edge and Michigan's undisciplined defensive ends have started to play more consistently. My big concern in this game is Kenny Demens, who has been slowed by a few injuries and has shown a lot of struggles diagnosing plays. This is the kind of offense that punishes linebackers for not making quick reads.
As Greg Mattison instructed the team to do against Northwestern, the unblocked defensive ends on the option will always play contain on the quarterback, forcing a handoff. This means there will be a lot of running plays headed directly at Desmond Morgan that he'll need to stay disciplined on. I expect Michigan's defense to play far more zone coverage in this game than they have all year as a safety valve for blown assignments.
For the second straight week, the secondary will have its hands full with another star wide receiver. This week its A.J. Jenkins, who has 68 receptions for 1,030 yards this season. It will be interesting to see whether or not Mattison leaves JT Floyd to cover Jenkins or whether he gives Blake Countess a crack at it. Floyd struggled last week, which may be a strong enough argument to give Countess the first shot at covering Jenkins.
Fortunately, Illinois' quarterback is still hit-or-miss thrower Nathan Scheelhaase. Though he's a shifty runner (not a lot of top-end speed, though), his throwing motion and accuracy are, well, iffy. He runs the option well, but when he's asked to throw the ball, he often struggles. For proof, in last year's triple overtime loss, Scheelhaase only threw the ball 25 times. Denard and Tate Forcier combined for 39 passing attempts in the game. Illinois does not throw the ball much.
I don't know. If I had any inclination what the offense will look like on Saturday, this would be easier to call. Unfortunately, Al Borges seems to be trending more toward an I formation system. If that's the case, Michigan is going to struggle to run the ball and Mercilus is going to add to his already gaudy stats. But even if Michigan does play primarily from the shotgun, it's tough to see them moving the ball against a defense that's proven to be one of the more consistent in the country. Denard's accuracy problems and the offensive line's struggles run blocking create an inconsistent offense that will likely struggle to move the ball. And given that the Illinois defense is more blitz-heavy than Iowa's, you can expect more pressure on Denard and more errant throws.
I don't expect Illinois' offense to move the ball much either. Aside from a few frustrating drives punctuated by linebackers giving up the edge, neither Scheelhaase or starting running back Jason Ford present too much of a threat on the ground. A.J. Jenkins will get his receptions, but I'm confident enough in the secondary that he won't be catching Michael Floydian deep jump balls. Though I do expect Illinois to put together a few more scoring drives than Michigan will be able to muster.
Michigan 17 - Illinois 24