This preview relies heavily upon Drexel's Illinois scouting report, which you should read in its entirety.
Run Offense vs. Illinois
When the internet proclaimed J Leman linebacking God a couple years ago it was based more upon his sartorial choices than anything else, and when Leman went undrafted that seemed to be that. Just one American Hero with an American Flag Tie, but not that much of an impact on the actual field.
Uh, in a word: no.
This isn't all Leman's departure: OMG shirtless recruit D'Angelo McCray transferred to—hey, wow—Eastern Illinois this offseason and DE Sirod Williams was lost for the season with an ACL injury. Meanwhile, OMG shirtless recruit Martez Wilson is lapping up that good Zook coachin':
According to veteran Illini beat writer Mark Tupper, Wilson was "repeatedly out of position" in last Saturday's loss to Penn State. …
Though he's as physically gifted as any player the school has ever had, Wilson still isn't playing the way Zook had hoped he would. It isn't a lack of effort. Or ability. Or mental preparation. …
"Potentially, as an athlete, he's as good as I've ever seen. But as a linebacker, he's still not there. He's middle of the road right now.
Against the real teams on their schedule (and, uh, Eastern Illinois), the Illini have been shredded in a way that indicates serious issues. Drexel:
PSU was able to blows them off the ball most of the game. They were a little better against Missouri, but nobody really stood out to me the way Wisconsin’s guys did. … I think they will probably blow up a few plays here and there, but they don’t seem like a group that’s going to control the line of scrimmage all day. They are better than ND, but I will be disappointed if we don’t run the ball consistently on Saturday.
Illinois is heavily into slants and stunts and Michigan should come ready with some counter action.
This should be closer to Notre Dame than Wisconsin, especially if Illinois goes with a cover-two look to back up this:
The linebacker moves might not be as apparent this week, because Illinois figures to play just two linebackers and more defensive backs in a "nickel" look against Michigan's multi-receiver spread offense.
Notre Dame spent its day against Michigan in a 4-2 nickel, too, and relied on an array of corner and safety blitzes to provide another guy in the box. Sometimes this worked out for a three- or four-yard loss; other times McGuffie just skated into the secondary.
As a bonus for Michigan's chances, n00b safety Donsay Hardeman has leapt into the starting lineup largely for lack of a better option. Illinois Loyalty suggsted Penn State attack the safeties:
We're all excited that Donsay Hardeman is finally going to get some playing time, but he has zero experience, and the rest of the crew has had some serious issues with being in the right place at the right time. That, and tackling.
There were many times against Notre Dame—playing the same 4-2 nickel with the same dodgy defensive line and okay-not-great linebackers—that the only thing standing between Michigan and a long touchdown was the outstanding play of David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy.
I know this is going to sound crazy after the game we all just lived through, but I think Michigan can take these guys. I mean, everyone else has. If Wilson's in the game, look for some misdirection, as he has a tendency to get wildly out of position.
Key Matchup: Everybody now! Molk, Moosman, and Rotating Right Guard against the Illinois defensive tackles. Michigan won this battle authoritatively against ND and lost it authoritatively against Wisconsin. Rodriguez was specific about this in the press conference: it was "embarrassing" that Michigan couldn't get to the second level. They've got to fix that; sounds like that's well within reach.
Pass Offense vs. Illinois
Illinois year to date:
This is not particularly inspiring, but Steven Threet is no Chase Daniel and may not even be Darryl Clark. Drexel says that Vontae Davis is a fine corner but "other than that, they don’t have anybody that is good in man coverage." We already mentioned the safeties as an issue in the run game, but here's the houdini bit: Illinois Loyalty was actually suggesting Penn State attack the safeties via the air. Drexel echoes:
I think we will be able to get an easy one down the sideline. The safeties are not quick to get to the sideline if there is a vertical threat down the seam. If we get a player in the flat to hold the corner, and a guy down the side line and down the seam, somebody will be open for a big play.
Michigan's been close several times this year, mostly to Greg Mathews, but hasn't taken advantage of the opportunities presented themselves either because Mathews is still a little gimpy or Threet's a little off or the general bloody-mindedness of the universe decided that the refs would call that quasi-catch against ND incomplete. They will have more opportunities this week.
BONUS possibility for aerial happiness: though Illinois is 31st in sacks, all but two came against the goofballs on the schedule. Those two sacks against Penn State and Missouri came on 65 attempts. This is not a good ratio.
Meanwhile, Steven Threet regressed badly after an outstanding game against Notre Dame. He was errant, hesitant, and sometimes threw directly at people in the wrong jersey.
Complicating matters will be absences at receiver. Greg Mathews will play but is still hobbled by an ankle issue. Junior Hemingway is out with mono, and Darryl Stonum is expected to miss the game for violating team rules. Carson Butler has apparently worn through Rodriguez's patience and we'll be seeing a lot of freshman Kevin Koger.
That says more of Toney Clemons and Zion Babb to go with Mathews, a heavy dose of Martavious Odoms—if they can get him to run the right routes—and possibly some additional screens, except Michigan sucks at screens.
Drexel says that Illinois' alignment should open up the bubble variety, though:
The way they align against trips and five wide will give Michigan an advantage for the bubble screens. To twins they will play the corner over #1 but will split the distance between the tackle and #2 with the outside linebacker. To the trips they will put a ban over #1 and #2 and a safety deep over #3. It is hard for the inside defender to make a play on the bubble screen in this alignment, and I expect to see Michigan try to exploit this.
Threet's accuracy on bubble screens has been horrible, though, and so has the blocking out there. Now we're down to a gimpy Mathews, a freshman tight end, and maybe Toney Clemons… I seriously hope this was a major focus in practice this week.
This will be erratic, especially with Michigan's #2 and #3 receivers out. Illinois will probably put Davis on Mathews all day and take their chances with the vaunted Threet-Zion Babb hookup. I'm hoping for zero interceptions, a 50% completion rate downfield, one big play, and for the love of God some accurate bubble screens.
Key Matchup: Martavious Odoms versus linebackers or nickel corners or whoever. You can see that Michigan really thinks Odoms can be an effective part of the downfield passing game but route issues and Threet's inconsistency have hampered their efforts to get him the ball. To have a big day in the passing game, Odoms has to be a factor. I suggest that one of the big plays we can go after is that wheel route we like.
Run Defense vs. Wisconsin
Last week I referenced the Notre Dame preview, noting that the rush defense's true ability level was pleasantly obscured by an avalanche of sacks and predicted Wisconsin to do "better than okay," pegging Fresno State's performance—allowing 154 yards on 39 carries—as a decent benchmark for the D.
The results, excluding four sacks for 20 yards:
That is indeed better than okay and a little short of Fresno State but the numbers are potentially distorted by one long run on third and short from John Clay. I continue to maintain that this rush defense isn't as good as the stats (#16 currently) suggest; they're not exactly bad, either.
It remains to be seen exactly how relevant Michigan's performance to date is against Illinois. Of Michigan's four opponents, two are (mostly) conventional I teams and a third, Utah, runs a spread in formation only, deploying two mondo power backs and largely eschewing quarterback runs. Juice Williams and Illinois are a different sort of offense entirely.
As to that offense, Drexel's scouting report on the Illini indicates we should have an advantage in the trenches:
Missouri consistently pushed these guys backwards and blew up their inside and outside zone plays. Penn State also pushed them around for the most part, but Illinois ran some counters and traps to punish them for getting up field. They are athletic enough to get down field and get a block. They also seem to have their timing figured out a little better than Michigan on their chip blocks in the zone scheme. …
The Badger O-Line looked to work to the second level and absolutely bury linebackers. The Illini seem to just try and get in the way of linebackers. It looked much easier to shed their blocks than the Wisconsin O-line.
An advantage in the trenches is nice but Illinois has attacked the edge frequently, and with uneven success:
Penn State's run defense isn't what it used to be with the defensive line attrition they've suffered and Sean Lee's ACL tear, but Michigan hasn't proven it's that much better year to date. I am especially leery about Michigan's oft-confused outside linebackers against the option and Juice Williams in space, though I do submit that Jonas Mouton is probably better prepared than most to track down Williams on the edge.
Pass Defense vs. Illinois
Everyone knows superfreak Arrelious Benn, who's the kind of receiver that can turn a Juice Williams into a multiple touchdown-throwin' guy, and against real defenses. Think Braylon Edwards paired with freshman Chad Henne. The rest of their receivers are just "okay" according to Drexel, and everyone else.
Juice Williams, meanwhile, is still pretty much Juice Williams. The Big Ten shuddered after his 451-yard, 5 touchdown performance against Missouri, but then he did this…
…and everything seemed okay. Benn is his one true love: he averaged 27.5 YPC against Penn State, netting 110 yards; Juice's other 20 attempts collected 73.
Michigan has had a fierce pass rush year to date, and spent large parts of the final drive against Wisconsin rushing three and getting to Evridge. Defensive ends Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham have been beasts except when blocked by six guys at a time, like against Notre Dame. Michigan is seventh nationally in sacks with 3.25 a game.
Williams' mobility might be a problem, but if three or four rushers are getting to him there should be enough guys in short zones to contain him adequately. The bigger issue will be when Williams breaks contain and Benn breaks downfield; that combination can turn a broken play into 30 yards faster than you can say "bip."
This is going to be a high variability area. The Illinois offense and Williams' running ability demand safety attention on a lot of different plays, potentially opening up Michigan to exploitation when one of the guys bites at the wrong time. Benn will run open deep at least a few times unless we get super lucky. It will then be up to Williams to hit this open Benn, which he has been inconsistent doing. Much will hinge on four or five moments when a Williams pass arcs through the air, seeking Benn deep.
Key Matchup: Stevie Brown and Trent/Warren bracketing Benn. If he's open we're in trouble; if he's covered we might still be in trouble. The over/under for big Benn plays in this game is 1.5; anything less and I think we're good.
Michigan has been totally erratic here. KC Lopata has been reliable, hitting four of five with a 52 yarder in the mix. Zoltan The Inconceivable has been great to the point that I plan on breaking down his epic spaceness in the near future, but a number for you: 41.63. That's Michigan's net punting, and that's #6 nationally.
Everything else has been a toxic disaster zone. Not only are Michigan returners fumbling the ball away at least twice every game, but even when they get the ball in their hands they are instantly swarmed by unblocked opponents: 111th in punt returns. 103rd in kick returns. Jesus hamburger in a biscuit hell.
Illinois, though, hasn't been much better. Their net punting is 88th; if the current averages hold up every time the teams exchange punts Michigan will be picking up nine yards. Their punt return game is 94th, their kick returns 72nd. Kicker Matt Eller's been okay, hitting 5 of 7 so far.
Key Matchup: I SWEAR TO GOD JUST KNEEL IT IN THE ENDZONE *#$&#$#$#.
- Anyone fields a kick.
- Threet stars out like he did against Wisconsin.
- Our linebackers get confused and let players outside of them.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Illinois' nickel gets gashed like ND's did.
- Odoms runs the right routes.
- The punting matchup is as lopsided as it appears. No, seriously, this is a huge silent advantage for Michigan.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 out of 10. (Baseline 5; –1 for You Beat ULL By Three!, +1 for We Beat Miami By Ten And Threw A Party, –1 for Good God They're Swiss Cheese Against The Run, +1 for Lingering Anti-Spread Paranoia).
Desperate need to win level: 7 out of 10. (Baseline 5; +1 for This Is Winnable And We Need The Wins, +1 for 2-0 In The Big Ten And Maybe We're On To Something, +1 for Keep The Mojo On The Gogo, –1 for But Yeah We're 2-2 And Probably Headed Somewhere Uninspiring)
Loss will cause me to... cancel the hotel reservations in Detroit that I canceled at halftime of the Wisconsin game and remade immediately after.
Win will cause me to... woooooo Rose Bowl baby!
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
Brace yourselves: I think I talked myself into it. Vegas has us a small favorite and that seemed preposterous but as I started looking at things this seems like the sort of team we can have success against, because first and foremost they have a sketchy defensive line, and second and secondmost they have a sketchy defensive line.
I think we'll see the return of the run game that was functional to excellent against ND, and that should give Threet some more time to settle down and hit a few passes. You don't give up the sort of yards Illinois has without having serious systemic issues that don't go away in a week. We aren't going to
Defensively, I don't fear long drives, as Michigan should be able to stuff third downs on the regular. There will probably be a couple sustained drives but it shouldn't be a regular occurrence. I do fear big plays: Benn running open past Brown or Warren, Williams juking Thompson and screaming into the secondary. I am prepared to live with three horrible events. More than that and we're in trouble.
Also I fear anyone returning a kick or punt.
But… I think we win. Somebody shoot me.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Brandon Minor gets at least half the carries and someone breaks off a long one.
- Mike Martin has a major impact as the 3-3-5 NT.
- Michigan, 27-23.