Michigan Monday - Illinois
By Tony Gerdeman
There came a point towards the end of the second quarter of Michigan's 31-14 win over Illinois where I began to examine my life and really wonder whether or not watching football was fun for me anymore.
After all, I clearly wasn't enjoying the game, but then who would have enjoyed the game to that point?
Here are the results of the eight (yes, eight) drives that took place over the final nine minutes of the second quarter: Michigan turned it over on downs; Illinois fumbled on the next play; Michigan fumbled three plays later; Illinois went three and out; Michigan missed a field goal; Illinois went three and out again; Michigan threw an interception on a hail mary; and Illinois ran out the final two seconds of the half.
It was the opposite of thrilling. Michigan had a 14-0 lead at the time and it was unclear if anybody actually wanted to win the game.
The only consistent aspect of the game was the Wolverines' defense. Let me type that again to make sure that you don't read past it—the only consistent aspect of the game was the Wolverines' defense.
I probably haven't written those words since 2006. In fact, my spellcheck has the entire phrase underlined with a red squiggly line.
But it's true. There was no confusion. There was no Benny Hill music. Against an offense that has the potential to do quite a few things, Michigan didn't let them do any of it. The Wolverines displayed a level of competency on defense that until this season we had grown unaccustomed to.
I understand that the Big Ten is down, but the most amount of points this Wolverine defense has given up to Big Ten opponents is just 24 points—twice (Northwestern and Iowa). By comparison, the Buckeyes have given up at least 26 points to THREE Big Ten opponents.
The tables may have not yet been turned completely, but you can hear them screeching across the floor. Though to be fair, the Buckeyes have played better offensive teams than the Wolverines have.
When Michigan Was On Offense
It was another disjointed outing for the Michigan offense, but it was certainly punctuated by the running of Fitzgerald Toussaint who gained 192 yards on 27 carries. This was Toussaint's third 100-yard rushing game of the season, and there is now an outside possibility that he could overtake Denard Robinson as the team's rushing yardage leader.
Toussaint has 673 yards rushing on the season, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Robinson, who was held in check even prior to being injured (more on that in a moment), managed to rush for 30 yards on twelve carries. It was not a good outing on the ground for the quarterback. Robinson currently has 864 yards rushing on the season and is looking for his second-consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.
In total, the Wolverines rushed for 223 yards, but they lost 41 yards from tackles in the backfield. Toussaint himself lost fifteen yards. The offensive line had an up and down day. Illinois has an aggressive defense, so they are going to make some plays in the backfield, and their success has probably given some future opponents a few ideas on how to handle this rushing attack.
Robinson completed 6-10 passes for 92 yards. He threw an interception on a hail mary at the end of the first half that meant nothing, but he also had a terrible would-be interception dropped by Trulon Henry. The drop came with Michigan leading 14-0, and had Henry caught the ball he would have had a return deep into Michigan territory. It could have changed the momentum in a very dramatic way, though admittedly Illinois would have given it right back somehow. It's just who they are.
Robinson took some hard shots, but was only sacked once. He rushed for two touchdowns, but had to leave the game in the third quarter after spraining his wrist when he smashed it on a helmet on his follow through.
He also fumbled twice, and his team lost both of them. Fortunately for the Wolverines, the Illini couldn't capitalize against the Michigan defense.
Not only is this Michigan defense not putting their offense in bad spots, but they're also picking up the pieces when the offense makes mistakes. It's...different. Cats living with dogs and whatnot.
Devin Gardner came in for Robinson in the third quarter and played the rest of the way. He was 2-5 passing for 47 yards, which included a 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Martavious Odoms. Gardner also rushed for nine yards on two carries.
None of the receivers had a big day, but they still did what was asked of them. They blocked, and they caught what was thrown their way. Once Robinson went down, the offense didn't stretch their bounds. They were conservative and won the surest way—and they still scored two touchdowns under Gardner's watch.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Let's first start out by saying that Illinois is dumb. Their offense is dumb. Their defense is dumb. Everything about them is dumb. That's how they can lose to Ohio State by constantly falling for draw plays in a game where the Buckeyes completed just one pass.
Beating Illinois this season is no great feat, but that doesn't mean that how you do it can't be impressive. For instance, Illinois had negative twelve yards rushing in the first half of this game. Only five of their ten first-half rushes went for positive yards, and the long carry of the half—an eight-yarder from running back Jason Ford, turned into a fumble and recovery by the Wolverines.
Michigan held Illinois to just 37 yards rushing on 33 carries, which equates to a 1.1 yard per carry average. Illinois lost 68 yards on the ground due to negative plays.
Defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen's 2.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss accounted for 28 of those lost yards.
This was one of the better outings for the duo of Van Bergen and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Martin actually led the team in tackles with nine. He also finished with a half a sack.
Illinois hasn't been able to run the ball this season, but they still have players who can make plays. Michigan shut them all down. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase carried the ball sixteen times for fourteen yards. He actually gained 63 yards, but lost 49 throughout the game.
He completed 16-31 passes for 170 yards, but was picked off once and sacked four times. He was constantly under pressure from a defense that came from several different angles.
The Wolverines once again showed various five-man fronts. One in particular was with Craig Roh and Jake Ryan as rush linebackers in a 3-4 look. This would seem to have potential down the road, especially as Michigan's interior continues to come together.
There were also several zone blitzes on passing downs which saw seven-man fronts with players dropping back or attacking depending on the call. This was actually quite effective when they went to it. Illinois rarely made Michigan pay for a blitz.
Individually, I was fairly impressed with freshman linebacker Desmond Morgan. He finished with eight tackles, though none of them came in the backfield. He had one tackle near the line of scrimmage that required him to shed a blocker and take a ball carrier on head-on, and he dispensed with both like a four-year starter. This was the first time he looked like a Big Ten linebacker more than a MAC linebacker.
He also showed decent recovery ability in pass coverage against tight end Jon Davis.
I was also very impressed with cornerback J.T. Floyd, who I thought played his best game of the year, and that was even before he jumped a stop route and picked off a Scheelhaase pass and returned it 43 yards down the sideline.
Floyd was frequently matched up with Biletnikoff semifinalist A.J. Jenkins, and won more battles than he lost. Jenkins finished with 103 yards receiving on eight catches, but they were quiet catches, and most came via zones. As Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said a while back, Jenkins is “nothing special really”.
It really seems like the defense has finally found the sweet spot in their rotations. Everybody is comfortable with what they're being asked to do, and right now nobody is being asked to do something that they can't do.
It's pretty amazing how far Jeremy Gallon has come as a punt returner in one season. Last year teammates and fans would be in full sphincter-clench waiting to see whether or not Gallon was actually going to field a punt cleanly. This year, not only is he fielding flawlessly, but he's also making strides in his returns. He had a 32-yarder against Illinois, and finished with 62 yards on four punt returns. He provided field position several times, which allowed Michigan to stay ahead of the curve on that front.
Will Hagerup continued to struggle in the punting game. He averaged just 34.2 yards per punt, only putting one of his kicks inside the 20-yard line. He hasn't yet shown the booming leg that earned him offers from all over the midwest as a high schooler.
Brendan Gibbons missed a 38-yard field goal, but it wasn't a terrible miss, and it was at Illinois. There's never been a cooperative wind in the history of that God-forsaken stadium.
The Wolverines also covered kicks fantastically well. Matt Wile put five of his six kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks. The special teams continued to put their offense and defense in positions to succeed, but could clearly use some more leg on their punts.
What Does It All Mean
It means that Denard Robinson isn't throwing the ball very well, and isn't running the ball very well. There is no consistency to his game right now, and you have to wonder if he is going to begin pressing or questioning himself. If I didn't know better, I would also say that he is beginning to prove his naysayers right—and yet Michigan is still 8-2.
Don't get me wrong, those calling for Robinson to be benched are crazy. If Devin Gardner were to take this team over full time, what would happen during one of those games when the running game gets shut down? Believe me, it will be easier to shut down without Robinson in the lineup.
However, the constant turnovers from Robinson have to stop. He's not doing more harm than good yet, but if a team were to capitalize on his every turnover, then Michigan would lose, and they would lose by multiple scores.
But here Michigan is at 8-2 with only a few million cares in the world. Though even when one aspect of their team is struggling, there is enough good going on with the rest of the team to pick up the slack.
In other words, the little things are getting done. The coaching has been heeded and the results are seen on the field every single week—even in their losses. It may seem ludicrous to hear, but this team isn't very far from 10-0. I think that speaks more to the low quality of the Big Ten, but the fact remains that the Wolverines are doing what they need to do to get wins.
Though before we start crowning the Legends Division runner-up, let's not forget that Michigan has split their last four conference games, and they close against Nebraska and Ohio State.
Michigan may have liked the sound of 8-4 at the beginning of the season, but not anymore. Things have changed in Ann Arbor. Teams actually have to beat the Wolverines now, because they're not going to do it for you.
Which again, as we talked about at the outset, makes football less fun for me.
The Road To The Big One
September 3 Michigan 34 – Western Michigan 10 (1-0)
September 10 Michigan 35 - Notre Dame 31 (2-0)
September 17 Michigan 31 - Eastern Michigan 3 (3-0)
September 24 Michigan 28 - San Diego State 7 (4-0)
October 1 Michigan 58 - Minnesota 0 (5-0, 1-0)
October 8 Michigan 42 – Northwestern 24 (6-0, 2-0)
October 15 Michigan State 28 – Michigan 14 (6-1, 2-1)
October 29 Michigan 36 - Purdue 14 (7-1, 3-1)
November 5 Iowa 24 - Michigan 16 (7-2, 3-2)
November 12 Michigan 31 – Illinois 14 (8-2, 4-2)
November 19 Nebraska
November 26 Ohio State
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