By Tony Gerdeman
Michigan's 45-0 win over Illinois on Saturday carried a couple of statements with it. The first is that the Illini (2-5, 0-3) are completely terrible right now. They have no direction and no plan.
If they were lost in a forest, they'd walk in circles until the weak ones died of starvation and the strong ones died from food poisoning after consuming the tainted, botulised carcasses of the weak.
The other statement is that this Michigan team does not suffer fools even a little.
First it was Purdue last week, and then Illinois this past week. If you come in and play poorly, the Wolverines are going to capitalize every step of the way.
In other words, the teams left on Michigan's schedule need to play some of their best football of the year in order to win. I think the days of the Wolverine offense giving games away is over for the year, and the defense is really beginning to play as a single entity right now.
Now that might all go out the window on the road at night in Lincoln, or against an offense like Northwestern that can complete eight-yard passes in their sleep.
Every other game, however, I would expect to see the Wolverines at their absolute best.
When Michigan Was on Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 353 yards on 51 carries, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Denard Robinson had carries of 33 and 49 yards on his way to rushing for 128 yards on just eleven carries.
Four players carried the ball at least nine times against Illinois, as Al Borges and Brady Hoke look for some complements to Robinson's stellar running.
Once again, however, Fitzgerald Toussaint struggled. He finished with 62 yards on 18 carries (3.4 ypc), but 24 of those yards came on a pair of twelve-yard runs. The rest of his 16 carries went for just 38 yards (2.4 ypc).
Toussaint's numbers become more concerning with the numbers put up by backups Thomas Rawls (9-90) and Justice Hayes (10-66). Rawls had a 63-yard touchdown run and Hayes had a 24-yard run, so not only are they more productive, they are also making bigger plays in fewer opportunities.
Too many times a Toussaint carry feels like a wasted down, like Borges is hoping each next carry will be the one that returns Toussaint to the player he was last year. It's 'Quantum Leap', but for football. Toussaint is Sam and Borges is, fittingly, Al.
In fairness to Toussaint, without Rawls and Hayes' two big runs, they averaged 3.4 and 4.7 yards per carry, respectively. But at least they showed big-play potential. Toussaint's long carry of the year was a 31-yarder against Notre Dame, and that is looking more and more like an anomaly.
On the season, Toussaint has seven carries of ten yards or more, and four of them came against Massachusetts. I don't know how much longer they can continue to give him carries in order to work out of whatever funk he is in. And maybe he's not in a funk. Maybe this is just who he is now.
And I'll say again, the fact that he can't capitalize on the threat that Robinson provides on his reads – which were fantastic this week – is damning.
An interesting thing happened after Robinson threw eight interceptions in his first four games – Borges stopped calling so many passing plays.
In Michigan's first four games, Robinson threw the ball 26, 25, 24 and 24 times. In his last two following the four-interception performance against Notre Dame, he has thrown the ball 16 and 11 times.
Some might want to say that he's not throwing the ball lately because his team is in the midst of a blowout win, but he still managed to throw the ball 24 times in a 63-13 win over UMass.
I don't think the Wolverines are blowing opponents out because Robinson isn't throwing as much – he was 7-11 for 159 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois, I think they are blowing opponents out simply because they're that much better than Purdue and Illinois.
Will Michigan play in any games this season where Robinson needs to throw the ball 25 times again? If they are, will he come through? Even with just eleven passes thrown on Saturday, there were a couple that shouldn't have been thrown.
Of course, Robinson's 245.1 passer rating from Saturday would argue that he did just fine.
Robinson did hurt his hand in the game and was replaced by Russell Bellomy, but he later returned and was fine.
Nine different Wolverines caught passes on Saturday, with nobody catching more than one pass. However, tight end Devin Funchess' eight-yard leaping touchdown grab in the back of the endzone probably should have counted for two.
Jeremy Gallon touched the ball on offense once, taking a screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown. As I have said all season, Gallon needs to touch the ball more than he currently is. It wasn't necessary this week because Illinois is a helpless baby in a tankful of tougher, better babies, but he is a legitimate weapon that makes his quarterback better.
The offensive line had its way with Illinois' defensive line, which has some talent on it. Motivation can sometimes be a factor for the Illini, but it certainly isn't a problem on Michigan's side.
When Michigan Was on Defense
Illinois actually moved the ball a little bit in the first half, and then quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase got crushed on a tackle and left the game for good. From then on, everybody in orange and white decided that they'd rather be anywhere else than Ann Arbor.
Michigan held the Illini to 29 yards passing and 105 yards rushing on 37 carries. It was a heartless, guiltless slaughter. Michigan Stadium as a kill room.
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Jake Ryan tied a career-high with eleven tackles, and had 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. There is nothing that he is asked to do that he doesn't excel at.
If he is in a position to make a play, he makes it. There is no question, no mystery. He can give two craps about spoiler alerts.
He's a guy with great range who is quick enough to play in the slot, and yet had a fourth-down stop playing defensive end.
When Buckeye fans lament the loss of in-state linebackers Trey DePriest and Jordan Hicks to Alabama and Texas, they need to put Jake Ryan at the top of the list because the Buckeyes actually have to face him on the field.
And lastly, he has awesome hair.
The front seven dominated this game, and while I'm still not sure where the playmakers are on the front four, right now they don't need to make plays, they just need to do their jobs.
Defensive tackle Quinton Washington was very active throughout the game, the most that I've seen him be involved from start to finish. Though, to be fair, "finish" came late in the third quarter for me when ABC switched to Oregon State at BYU.
It's funny that they switched away in Columbus when they never used to do that when Rich Rodriguez's teams were getting blown out.
I thought freshman defensive end Mario Ojemudia finally had a couple of nice moments. He's been invisible for most of the season, but he's starting to pop up more here and there.
Other than Jake Ryan, there are no consistent pass rushers on this defense yet.
Linebackers Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan played well again and it's clear that both have held off the two true freshmen who were pushing them a month or so ago.
It really is amazing how Greg Mattison and his staff can get every ounce of ability out of their players, and then simply scheme the rest.
Looking at the depth charts of the Ohio State and Michigan defenses, I think there are only three Wolverines that would be starters on Ohio State's defense – Ryan, Demens and Jordan Kovacs. That's it.
Yet somehow Ohio State's defense is giving up a touchdown more per game, and nearly 120 yards more per game as well. Michigan's defense is just so completely fundamentally sound that they are able to neutralize their weaknesses in ways that most teams cannot.
The Special Teams
There wasn't much to Michigan's special teams on Saturday. Will Hagerup punted once for 42 yards. His 49.2-yard average leads the conference by more than five yards.
Dennis Norfleet had a 42-yard punt return, and I'm sure it was a thing of beauty, but ABC didn't care to show it to me.
Michigan held the Illini to just 73 yards on four kickoff returns, with a long of just 21 yards.
What Does It All Mean
It probably means that Michigan is getting ready to dominate Michigan State on Saturday.
The Spartans don't do anything special, other than run the ball against lesser defenses. If the Wolverines can't stop Le'Veon Bell, I will need to recalibrate my opinion of their defense.
Early in the season I thought that Michigan could be run on between the tackles. I don't necessarily feel that way right now given the opponents coming up, but we're going to find out more on Saturday. I just think the defense will swarm to Bell very well and contain him.
It also means that Al Borges has found a way to work with Denard Robinson's foibles, and has done it by running the ball more than they have at any point in the season. Their 54 and 51 carries the last two weeks are the most they've had this season.
As that running game continues to excel – the Wolverines have rushed for 657 yards the last two weeks – the play-action passing game will continue to emerge, and Robinson's effectiveness will grow as well.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Michigan 31 - Air Force 26 (1-1)
Sept 15 Michigan 63 - Massachusetts 13 (2-1)
Sept 22 Notre Dame 13 - Michigan 6 (2-2)
Sept 29 Bye
Oct 6 Michigan 44 - Purdue 13 (3-2, 1-0)
Oct 13 Michigan 45 - Illinois 0 (4-2, 2-0)
Oct 20 Michigan State
Oct 27 at Nebraska
Nov 3 at Minnesota
Nov 10 Northwestern
Nov 17 Iowa
Nov 24 at Ohio State
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