||Michigan @ Illinois
||Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
||3:30 EST, October 31st, 2009
||Nationwide on ABC/ESPN2 mirror
||Sunny and around 50.
Note: I'm sick of qualifying "last two games" because Delaware State is in there and obviously doesn't matter. For the duration of this preview, the Baby Seal U game is assumed to not exist.
Run Offense vs. Illinois
Though Michigan has fallen off a bit from their ridiculous start, they've done well in the last two games, and they did that against good run defenses. Iowa is currently #44. Penn State is #4. Michigan put up 195 yards against Iowa with Minor racking up 95 on just 22 carries. Against Penn State Michigan did well but for five Forcier sacks, which have been excised from the below numbers:
That's 4.2 yards per carry against a team that's currently giving up 3.4 to the rest of the world. (Penn State's got 26 sacks for 155 yards on the year, which hugely distorts the numbers. Including those, PSU is giving up 2.6 YPC!) That, more than anything that's occurred against Baby Seal U, indicates that Michigan's got a ground game that's for real. At this point it's established. People on the internet and the radio are begging for more running plays. It's a good rushing offense even without David Molk.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois is atrocious. They're 101st in rushing defense. Various abominations put forth this year:
Yikes, eh? Every Big Ten opponent Illinois has faced has gashed them, with Michigan State the only team not to approach five yards a carry. When Mike Rothstein took a look at the Indiana game he came away thoroughly unimpressed, emphasis mine:
-Illinois run defense is unimpressive. Indiana ran right at the Illini’s front four with success, getting a lot of the push with the offensive line.
-The Illini front four also didn’t appear to pressure Ben Chappell much. They’d send four a lot and Chappell had plenty of time to sit in the pocket and throw quick seven-yard passes.
-Illinois really struggled when Indiana brought Mitchell Evans in to run the Wildcat (which usually leads to Evans running). Makes you wonder that if Denard Robinson can hold on to the ball, how much Michigan might be able to use him.
-Illinois’ cornerbacks are unimpressive. They gave a lot of cushion early on, but eventually pressed a little bit.
Ha ha ha, losers
-Illinois’ defense is a lot like Michigan’s. There seems to be a soft hole in the middle of the Illinois defense, much like the Wolverines.
Awwww, hamburgers. But for this section, at least, that's good news: Illinois is flat terrible and is going up against a running offense considerably better than those of certain teams that have crushed them. Michigan should average at least five yards a carry; the Denard Robinson Experience should be extremely effective; I want Michigan to run the ball on 80% of first downs until such point as it's obvious that's not a good idea or it's time to screw around.
Brandon Minor is slightly hurt, as he always has been and always will be, but will be available; this is a game in which Shaw and Smith will get some cracks, too.
Key Matchup: HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL. If Michigan just keeps pounding at Illinois, they've demonstrated that they will crack, Molk or no.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
Illinois is also terrible here. Whee! They can't get to the quarterback: they're 112th in sacks. They can't defend it when it's passed: they're 91st in pass efficiency defense. They are almost mediocre in terms of yards but that's an effect of the rush defense being so bad and Illinois being so bad and everyone just running all the time.
I mean, there's not that much else to say. Ben Chappell went 23/38 for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Terrelle Pryor threw twice in the first half. These two items suggest about all you need to know about Illinois's pass defense: when you have to, you can slice and dice it. You probably won't have to.
The non-Chappell numbers can not make this any clearer:
If you are not Terrelle Pryor you will throw 25 times a game with some uninspiring final yardage numbers, a YPA around 7, and no touchdowns because you just run 'em in. End of story. Illinois likes to lay back and play it safe, because the alternative is the Missouri game.
Michigan's passing offense has bogged down in a big way against two of the best pass defenses in the country the past two weeks. Pass protection has been a major issue. So have drops. And poor decisions from the quarterback. And questionable penalties. Virtually anything that can be going wrong with a passing game has been doing so for Michigan of late.
Things figure to improve against Illinois. That sacks number indicates that Michigan shouldn't have nearly as much trouble holding a pocket together against the Illini as they did against their last three real opponents, which should give whoever's in it some time to come off a first read and hit a second. We'll see if said passer actually takes that opportunity instead of running around like crazy. Probably not, if I had to guess. In any case, Illinois is going to give Michigan a lot of soft coverage because they don't have an alternative, and Forcier should find open guys for short gains when Michigan bothers to pass, which won't be often.
Key Matchup: Forcier versus his tendency to run around. This is a game in which he should be able to stick in the pocket.
Run Defense vs. Illinois
This is the one thing other than waterskiing…
…Illinois is not terrible at. This is largely because of the presence of Juice Williams and his crazy ninja ballfakes. Illinois's rushing game is a crazy reflection of Michigan's. They run a ton of zone option stuff but they run a lot of veer plays where everyone blocks down on the line, leaving the playside DE open as the RB tries to get outside; Williams reads that guy and makes a decision. Illinois likes this for a couple reasons:
- Juice Williams is an excellent runner who can make significant yards on this up the middle, and
- their offensive line is a disaster and down-blocking a bunch of guys is way easier than attempting to stretch them a la Michigan.
They will like it even more against Michigan because it will allow them to not block Brandon Graham. Illinois isn't going to block Brandon Graham whether or not they're trying to; on this play Illinois will be prepared for it. Expect to see a lot of guys tackling RBs without the ball.
You might remember Michigan getting shredded by this last year. Or you might have forgotten it all in an alcoholic haze. (They… they were the lucky ones.) There are a couple reasons to think Michigan will improve this go around. Most of the coaching staff has seen it, the offensive line is a lot worse and less of a threat to do anything else, and Michigan's not trying to get away with a really slow OLB.
However, you are probably thinking "this does not fix our bighuge problem at middle linebacker," and that is accurate. Michigan is still vulnerable to overpursuit from the linebackers and crippling errors from the safety and most visions of this game include one or two agonizing long runs from Illinois when someone blows an assignment.
When Charest comes in, Michigan should crush the ground game. Given this offensive line, Brandon Graham, and the rest of the Michigan defensive line there will be limited opportunities for any of Illinois' mediocre running backs to create yards without serious errors from Michigan's linebackers. Which there will be. So chalk up a 10 or 20 yarder or two with Charest in, interspersed with a lot of nothing.
Key Matchup: Ezeh and Mouton versus Williams. Williams is the big play threat and he will create big plays by convincing one of our erratic linebackers to tackle a guy without a ball or, like last year, convincing two.
Pass Defense vs. Illinois
Michigan has demonstrated that there is plenty of vulnerability in their secondary, but Illinois seems singularly incapable of taking advantage of it. Again, the terrible offensive line combines with confused, inaccurate quarterbacks to create a sort of crazy magic: Illinois is 112th in sacks allowed, 110th in passing efficiency, and 101st in passing yardage. They are terrible. This is how terrible: backup quarterback Eddie McGee got to start the Michigan State game and went 2 of 11 with a pick-six before getting yanked and is now a wide receiver.
The Not Juice du jour is redshirt freshman pocket passer Jacob Charest, who completed half of his passes against Purdue a week ago and will rotate in as Illinois tries to find something, anything, that works. The wisdom of sticking a freshman pocket passer behind your terrible offensive line when the opponent has Brandon Graham is… um… debatable, but when the alternative is Juice Williams it makes some sense.
Illinois still has terrifying uber-receiver Arrelious Benn around but can't get the ball to him because of the aforementioned problems. If Illinois does find protection it's going to be very tough for Michigan to cover him. Illinois loves lining him up in the slot and Michigan's response to that has been to stick Stevie Brown on said slot guy—sort of—and hope. With little in the way of safety help in Michigan's eight-man front, expect a wide-open corner route or two that may or may not be completed. Benn has an injured ankle and a dinged shoulder, FWIW. He will play; he's not 100%.
Michigan will have to defend the Illinois passing defense the way everyone has so far: sit back, let your line shred the Illinois line, and don't give up anything cheap before Illinois screws up a third and short or gets sacked or throws a hilariously terrible interception. It's teams like Illinois that remind us why bend-but-don't-break used to seem like such a good idea: people would shoot themselves in the foot well before they neared the endzone in the olden days.
Key Matchup: Jordan Kovacs and Mike Williams in two-deep coverage. They key to bending, but not breaking, is to not give up really long touchdowns. Can Michigan do that with a couple of slow underclassmen at safety? Eh… maybe, maybe not.
It's a theme: Illinois has terrible special teams. They're 108th in punt returns and 89th in kick returns. Kicker Matt Eller is 3/7 this year and missed an extra point. Their punting is pretty good, I guess.
Michigan, well: you know the story by now. The kick returns have returned to normal after an early period of competence, and the opposition kick returners are 50-50 to get a long one. Punting is fantastic; punt returns are an effort to fair catch every ball. Jason Olesnavage has been pretty good as a kicker. Slight advantage Michigan.
Key Matchup: CATCH THE DAMN BALL.
Kittens? I hesitate, but the spread is in the single digits.
- Illinois gets any push at all from the offensive line.
- Michigan can't pass protect again.
- Folks other than Graham aren't smoking their blockers.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Juice Williams is in third and long.
- Michigan doesn't even have to gesture towards play balance.
- They don't screw themselves with turnovers.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 3 out of 10. (Baseline 5, –1 for Holy God This Opponent Is Terrible, –1 for And In Ways That Play Into Michigan's Strengths And Away From Their Weaknesses, –1 for And Holy God, Just Look At It, +1 for This Same Quarterback Put Up M-vs-Baby Seals Yards Last Year, By Himself, +1 for and It Is A Road Game, –1 for That Will Be Attended By Six People.).
Desperate need to win level: 10 out of 10. (Baseline 5, +1 for This Is A Debacle Of A Team We're Playing, +1 for Loss Would Totally Blow The ND Game Good Feelings, +1 for …And It Would Make A Bowl Game Look Super Iffy, +1 for …And Then I'd Have To Go On The Radio The Day After, +1 for …And Then I'd Have To UFR It.)
Loss will cause me to... rip a single branch off every tree in Ann Arbor out of existential spite.
Win will cause me to... WOO BOWL GAME BABY.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
The recipe for this game is Lloydball. On offense: run, run, run, run. Sprinkle in a short pass here and there, run some play action for shots deep. But do it rarely and just plow ahead for your points. On defense, lay back. Bend but don't break, don't give Illinois anything cheap with their athleticism, and wait for the inevitable stuff/sack/incompletion that gets you off the field.
Can Michigan follow this recipe? On offense, almost assuredly. The only thing that argues otherwise is the persistent issue with fumbles. If Michigan HOLDS ON TO THE DAMN BALL, the rushing numbers from the first few Big Ten games will be at least replicated, with the Penn State bombing more likely than the quasi-respectable game against Michigan State. Michigan matches up well against this defense. (Who doesn't, you ask? Er.)
It's a little bit iffier on a defense that's alternated stretches of competence with huge errors or structural deficiencies that give away easy yards. I expect Illinois to look almost competent on offense, something similar to the first half of the Penn State game where Illinois' running game was working pretty well and Penn State was busy with that and couldn't be bothered to get the pressure that kills Williams. So they'll have some drives that move the ball, but without short yardage it's hard to see more than one serious touchdown drive. Tack on one mind-bending error and some other stuff, and you've got a score similar to the other ones Illinois has put up so far, albeit one that assumes Illinois's points are not garbage-time decoration.
Finally, opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Denard goes for 100 yards.
- Michigan has a positive turnover margin.
- The safety play burns Michigan.
- Michigan, 28-17.