Michigan went into Champaign, Illinois on Saturday and held a 28-0 lead in the first half before holding on for a 42-25 come-from-ahead win over the Illinois Fighting Illini.
I heard a national radio host on Monday saying the game ended up being close because the Wolverines shut things down when it was 28-0, but I have to disagree. Michigan isn’t good enough on offense to shut things down right now. Hell, sometimes they aren’t good enough to start them up. If they’ve got something good going, they’re going to try to keep it going indefinitely.
And leading 28-7 at the half like the Wolverines did would be all the incentive a team needs to get things cranked up again. Instead, following that 28-0 start by Michigan, the Illini went on a 25-0 run of their own, making it 28-25 in the fourth quarter.
To the Wolverines’ credit, they responded quite well at that point.
With the all of the momentum in the Illinois corner, Michigan went on a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive to make it 35-25 with nine minutes remaining in the game.
The Wolverine defense then stepped up, forcing a fumble by quarterback Matt Robinson on the Illini’s next play from scrimmage. The Michigan offense was stopped on a fourth and two from the Illinois 12-yard line, but the defense forced another fumble and recovered it at the 1-yard line, which was punched in one play later to make it 42-25 and end all Illinois hopes.
All in all, it was both a very bizarre and yet a perfectly understandable outing for the 2019 Michigan Wolverines.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Illinois came in with a terrible run defense, so it was no surprise to see Michigan focus on their rushing attack.
The Wolverines ran for 295 yards on 48 attempts (6.1 ypc).
Redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins led the team with 125 yards on 12 attempts, and true freshman Zach Charbonnet “pitched in” with 116 yards on 18 attempts.
Haskins had a fantastic 29-yard touchdown run that featured him breaking arm tackles and refusing to go down in the first quarter.
Michigan came into this game with just one 20-yard rush on the season. Haskins had three all by himself against the Illini.
Charbonnet lost a fumble, as did senior Tru Wilson. All told, the Wolverines fumbled three times this past weekend, which is about their average.
If there is a major nit to pick here, it’s that Michigan rushed for 205 yards on 24 attempts in the first half (8.5 ypc), but only 90 yards on 24 attempts (3.8 ypc) in the second half. And 44 of those yards came on Michigan’s final drive as they ran the clock out.
For nearly two quarters, they were shut down on the ground by an Illinois defense that has allowed 346 yards rushing to Nebraska and 332 yards rushing to Minnesota. The Illini defense was expecting the run, which made it easier to contain, but they knew it was coming in the first half too and couldn’t do anything about it.
Quarterback Shea Patterson threw three touchdowns and no interceptions, but completed just 11-of-22 passes for 194 yards.
The Wolverines were playing without receiver Nico Collins, so that was at least three targets that Patterson didn’t get to take.
Slot receiver Ronnie Bell led the team with three catches for 98 yards, which included a 71-yard catch and run. Donovan Peoples-Jones caught three passes for 36 yards and a touchdown, going over 1,000 yards receiving for his career.
On Monday, head coach Jim Harbaugh said that backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was cleared to play against the Illini. He did not see any action in the game. At no point did Patterson deserve to be pulled. It’s clear that he needs a confidence boost and rotating McCaffrey in for some random snaps wouldn’t have done him any good.
This week, however, Harbaugh is going to do everything he has to to win at Penn State and there will be no protecting anybody’s confidence.
That doesn’t mean McCaffrey is the better choice either. He doesn’t throw the ball well enough right now and has trouble running safe enough to be reliable.
Every throw by either quarterback has a clench-factor to it and I don’t see that changing this season.
The best part of the game for Michigan came in the fourth quarter. On the Wolverines’ drive following Illinois cutting the lead to 28-25, Michigan was faced with a long fourth-and-two from the Illini 12-yard line with 10 minutes or so remaining in the game. Normally, this would be a field goal attempt, but Harbaugh instead chose to go for it and Patterson ran the ball over the right side for four yards. Two plays later and Michigan had a touchdown.
Rather than coaching-by-numbers, Harbaugh sent a message to his offensive line that they weren’t going to settle and they were going to take all of the remaining momentum that this game had to offer.
It was great to see Harbaugh breathe some life into an offense that needs as much wind as it can find.
Or maybe he just had no confidence in his kickers.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Michigan held Illinois to 256 yards of total offense, but 214 of those yards came in a four-possession stretch where the Illini turned a 28-0 game into a 28-25 game.
Illinois rushed for just 64 yards on 43 attempts (1.5 ypc), which makes it three games in a row (and four of six) where the Michigan defense held an opponent under 100 yards rushing. In fact, it’s the fourth time this season they’ve held an opponent under 70 yards.
There is still the matter of the 359 yards rushing that Wisconsin managed a few weeks back, but they won’t need to worry about the Badgers again until the Big Ten title game.
Redshirt freshman backup quarterback Matt Robinson didn’t look too bad, but he spent much of the day being terrorized by Michigan’s front seven. He completed 16-of-25 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.
Rush linebacker Josh Uche picked up three sacks — two of them on Robinson — and five tackles for loss. Getting something out of Uche down the stretch would be huge for a defense that is looking for playmakers.
A guy who looks to be maturing into one of those playmakers is redshirt freshman inside linebacker Cam McGrone. McGrone was fast and decisive on the day, tying for the team lead with 11 tackles. He also added two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He took flat angles to cut down ball carriers before they got started. McGrone may have overrun a play or two, but you’ll get that from any linebacker. His future is bright and he has earned more snaps.
Illinois picked on redshirt freshman cornerback Vincent Gray with some success. Gray has had some great moments this season, but it was clear he was a target in this game. It will no doubt be a learning experience for him, and it won’t surprise me to see other teams following suit in the coming days and weeks.
Overall, it was a pretty dominating effort, save for two sustained touchdown drives of 67 and 80 yards, and then two more scoring drives of 31 and 36 yards.
Michigan’s defense did have some struggles when Illinois went up tempo, which will no doubt catch the attention of the Ohio State coaching staff.
The Michigan Special Teams
Michigan is using two kickers this season. Quinn Nordin is sort of the long-range guy and he also handles the extra points. Jake Moody does the kickoffs and the “regular field goals.” Moody is 5-of-6 on the season. Nordin is now 0-for-3 on the year after missing a 34-yarder against Illinois. I don’t know why he was kicking at that point and not Moody, but I’m not going to try to understand Jim Harbaugh. Though I will admit, a 34-yarder in the Illinois wind is like a 52-yarder anywhere else.
The Wolverines also blocked a punt, which led to a 7-yard touchdown drive for Michigan in the second quarter.
What Does It All Mean?
It doesn’t mean all that much.
Illinois is a bad football program right now. Michigan rushing for nearly 300 yards is always great, but allowing 25 points in a row was not. I wouldn’t be shocked if that was the first time in a decade that Illinois scored on four consecutive drives. I actually tried to research that, but as you can see I didn’t try all that hard.
It also means that Michigan will soon be packing up the family truckster and heading for Happy Valley, and they’ll be doing it not having learned much since their blowout loss at Wisconsin.
Is this an offense that can run the ball against a good defense? The signs would point to no.
Can the defense stop an elite offense? I don’t know. Fortunately, I don’t think Penn State would qualify as an elite offense. Iowa held them to 294 yards of total offense last week.
The Wolverines are currently a 9-point underdog heading for Saturday night’s White Out.
What Michigan has done since their loss to Wisconsin has been meaningless. Those meaningless games are over now, however, and if the Wolverines want to announce their readmittance to the College Football Picture, this would be the kind of win to get people’s attention.
Do I think it will happen?
I don’t think Michigan can run the ball against good defenses and I have no faith in Shea Patterson against any defenses.
I do think the Wolverine defense is picking up steam right now, but if Michigan’s offense needs to score 24 points to get the win, can they?
If Penn State just sits back in a two-deep zone to take away the deep ball, can Michigan move the ball down the field enough times to get the win?
And can they keep KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson from picking up big gains on crossing routes?
I will believe it when I see it. All of it.
The Road to The Game
Aug. 31 — Michigan 40 – Middle Tennessee 21 (1-0)
Sept. 7 — Michigan 24 – Army 21 (2-0)
Sept. 21 — Wisconsin 35 – Michigan 14 (2-1, 0-1)
Sept. 28 — Michigan 52 – Rutgers 0 (3-1, 1-1)
Oct. 5 — Michigan 10 – Iowa 3 (4-1, 2-1)
Oct. 12 — Michigan 42 – Illinois 25 (5-1, 3-1)
Oct. 19 — at Penn State
Oct. 26 — Notre Dame
Nov. 2 — at Maryland
Nov. 16 — Michigan State
Nov. 23 — at Indiana
Nov. 30 — Ohio State