Friday, October 12, 2012

Preview: Terrible Illinois 2012

Terrible Illinois vs. Michigan
The Big House
Kickoff 3:30 pm EST
Forecast: High-50s, 100% chance of rain (really?)

Last Week
Illinois 14 - Wisconsin 31. Illinois has not won a Big Ten game in over a calendar year. In fact, the last time they won a game in the conference was October 8, 2011, when the Fighting Illini beat Indiana 41-20. Now, this doesn't have anything to do with last week despite the fact that they lost to another Big Ten team, this time, Terrible Wisconsin.

Last week's game was relatively close until the fourth quarter. The teams were tied 7-7 going into the half with Illinois' only score coming on a Nathan Scheelhaase scramble and Wisconsin scoring on a 62-yard James White screen pass. Wisconsin was doing everything in its power to prove that it's no longer 2011 until the fourth quarter when they forced two three-and-outs, allowed only a field goal, and racked up 21 points including a two-play, 59-yard touchdown drive.

Scheelhaase went 18/29 for 178 yards (6.1 YPA) with 1 TD and 1 INT. He also racked up 82 yards on 22 carries. In other words, a typical Sheelhaase day. The rest of Illinois' offense was a non-factor. Meanwhile, Wisconsin mediocreback Joel Stave was able to throw for 254 yards on only 25 attempts.

Michigan 44 - Purdue 13. Last week, Michigan looked like the Michigan everyone hoped. Denard looked like Good Denard again: 8/16 for 105 yards through the air--and the best part, no interceptions--and 235 yards on 25 carries. Fitzgerald Toussaint had a rough day, but everyone else who touched the ball for the Maize and Blue found green grass ahead of them.

The defense turned in possibly its best performance of the year, limiting Purdue to just 213 yards on 12 drives; they forced/were gifted four turnovers; the linebackers are finally getting to their run fills on time; the defensive line is getting push; and the secondary is continuing its aggressive man-to-man coverage without giving up big plays.

Offense vs. Terrible Illinois
Melanie Maxwell |

BCS competition has scored no less than 31 points against Illinois in each game this year (Arizona State 45, Penn State 35, and Wisconsin 31, in addition to 52 points allowed to Louisiana Tech). Though the team ranks 38th in rushing yards per game allowed, they are 97th in pass efficiency defense; teams do not need to run the ball against the Illini because they're porous through the air.

If those numbers don't prove how pedestrian this defense is, the Illini's most dangerous defender is weakside defensive end Michael Buchanan, who has 2.5 sacks and 5 TFLs. The team's leading tackler, however is strong safety Ashante Williams. I am firmly of the belief that when your strong safety is your leading tackler, that's a bad thing (see: Jordan Kovacs 2009-2010).

No one will be happier to play Illinois than Fitz Toussaint. This will be the first time all year that Michigan plays a BCS opponent without multiple NFL draft picks in the front seven. Neither defensive tackle Akeem Spence nor Glenn Foster should be much of a problem for Michigan interior line to handle. Justin Staples and Buchanan aren't much for defensive ends, either (Illinois is 89th in the country in sacks). This will be a good barometer for Michigan's offensive line going forward.

With only five interceptions in 6 games, Illinois' secondary isn't much to fret about, but as always, generating turnovers against Michigan comes down to getting pressure on Denard (by the way, Michigan has the highest interception percentage in the country with 8.47%; the only team even close is Auburn with 8%). With a lackluster defensive line, Illinois will likely struggle to get the kind of pressure necessary to affect Denard unless they blitz a lot. With a strong bounceback game against Purdue, Denard and Borges look to be back on the same page. Though last week wasn't Denard's best performance through the air, it was more than enough to get the job done when you're averaging 9.8 YPC.

Expect a similar offensive structure this week: lots of inverted veer runs, with short passes and limited downfield shots. Borges may try to get Devin Funchess involved in the passing game a little more in this game after mostly falling off the map in the last few weeks. This can be attributed to teams actually guarding him, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more routes run with Funchess as the first read.

Defense vs. Terrible Illinois
Jonathan Daniel | Getty Images North America

So Nathan Scheelhaase is still Illinois' quarterback despite all of the available evidence against him. Dude plays like Tate Forcier, except he can't throw and doesn't look to extend plays in order to pass. So, not like Tate Forcier at all, but that's who he'll remind you of. Scheelhaase has started his third year as a starter poorly. He's completing 62% of his passes but only averaging 6.34 YPA. Add in a 3/5 TD/INT ratio and you have the makings of a disappointing junior year. Caveats for playing for a new coaching staff apply, but he doesn't look like he has a breakout performance waiting in reserves.

Flanking Scheelhaase in the backfield will be a number of different players, but sophomore Donovan Young leads the team in carries with 59. Young is averaging only 3.8 YPC, but few players are doing better: freshman Josh Ferguson is averaging 4.1 YPC and Scheelhaase is averaging a career low 2.3 YPC (down a yard from 2011). This is not a good offense: 101st in total offense, 78th in passing efficiency, and 94th in rushing yards per game. The only real receiving threat on the Illinois roster is junior Ryan Lankford who is averaging 14.5 yards per catch and has 5 yards on the season, but Lankford isn't the elite-level receiver that can really threaten Michigan's secondary.

This Wolverines defense is quietly becoming elite again. It ranks 7th in passing yards allowed per game, 26th in pass efficiency defense, and 37th in scoring defense. With Mattison and Hoke capable of turning anyone over 300 lbs into a reliable+ defensive lineman, this will become a perennial occurrence. The bad news for Illinois: they rank 109th in sacks allowed this season despite having a scrambling QB and option running game. This is not a good offensive line, which Mattison will take advantage of and the defensive line should dominate.

How does Michigan win? Come to play and don't turn the ball over. Illinois' offense is anemic, their defense has been torched by anyone resembling a decent offense, and there are no real offensive-threats/breakout players on Illinois' offense. Barring another Denarmageddon, this should be a routine game much like the Purdue win. (ps, It's a weird feeling being confident about a Big Ten game.)

How does Terrible Illinois win? Blitz. Force turnovers. Hope for a bad day from Denard. Kickoff/punt returns for TDs.

Arbitrary percentage that Michigan wins: 88.397%

Final prediction: Michigan starts scoring early and doesn't look back. Denard doesn't have nearly the rushing totals he did against Purdue, but that's offset by Fitz Toussaint having his best game of the season, finally breaking the 100-yard mark. Denard lights it up through the air though and finishes with two TDs and no interceptions. Defensively, JT Floyd has another strong game but is overshadowed by Jake Ryan who has 3 TFLs. Scheelhaase is pressured early and often and ends up throwing one arm-punt that sets Michigan up for an easy touchdown. Terrible Illinois 13 - Michigan 49


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