Friday, October 12, 2012

Preview And Prediction: Illinois

The Wolverines got off to a great start in conference play last week with a convincing win over a surging Purdue team that had put up 50+ points in each of its last 2 home games. Denard Robinson got himself back on track. The offensive and defensive lines did an outstanding job. The linebackers produced. The secondary was next to shut-down. It was a great Michigan day.

Now our boys stay at home for Week 7 against the Fighting Illini of Illinois, a team that has under performed this year to say the least.

Here are my top keys for each team heading into Saturday's action.


Everything seemed to be clicking last week for the Wolverines, and it would speak great volumes of the progress made if they could continue that for a second consecutive week.

1. Pressure Nathan Scheelhaase

Don't get me wrong; Nathan Scheelhaase has the capability of doing some great things for the Illini offense, but he hasn't been able to turn it on this year. Coming into this game, the Junior quarterback has only thrown 3 TDs, compared to 5 INTs. Not the kind of ratio you're looking for in a Big Ten quarterback.
In years past, what Scheelhaase was unable to do through the air, he could up for on the ground with his legs. That hasn't been the case so much this year. So far this season, he is yet to break 100 yards rushing, and we are talking about a quarterback who has averaged 746 yards on the ground over the past 2 seasons.

Getting pressure on a struggling quarterback is the the number one way to rattle his cage and force him into even more mistakes. We've seen this first hand actually. Think back to Week One against Alabama. Robinson did not have the game of a life time, and a big chunk of that is due to the ability of the Bama defense to get into the backfield and pressure him into mistakes.

Guys like Jake Ryan and Kenny Demens were huge in the backfield last week against Purdue. It would certainly be nice to see the same kind of production for them again against Illinois.

2. Let Denard Be Denard

I feel like I say this every week, but I finally have a great example of what I'm talking about here. Last week, Robinson only threw the ball 16 times, completing 8 of those, for just over 100 yards. It's not the typical quarterback outing, but Denard Robinson doesn't fit the typical quarterback mold.

When Al Borges lets Robinson turn the wheels loose, big things happen for the Wolverines. I'm not saying he should be running the ball 30 times per game, but letting the run game open up the pass game -- instead of the other way around -- gives Michigan its best shot to win ball games. Period.

Illinois is not sporting a very strong defense on Saturday. They're giving up an average of 40 points per loss this season. Not very good. And when does Michigan score its most points? When Denard is running the ball.


The Illini are simply not having a very good season... at all. Getting off to a 2-1 start may have fooled some fans into buying into something that wasn't really there, so I'm sure the disappointment is a bit dramatized. But all struggling teams would love to take a crack at a Top 25 team and get the train back on the tracks.

1. Protect Against The Run

If Al Borges comes out with a similar approach as he did against Purdue, the best thing the Illini can do to help themselves is protect against the run. Michigan is a team that works at something to establish it, not just poke at to see if it works.

If the Wolverines break 200 yards rushing in this game, it's over. The Illini offense has given me nothing to impressed with thus far, so the weight rests upon the defense here. Fortunately for the Illini front, Michigan has yet to find a reliable back. So, for right now, it's all Denard Robinson.

The key to guarding Robinson in the past used to be to make sure he didn't get the edge. That's where he could start dancing around, make a couple guys miss, then bolt up the field. But last week we sort of got a blast from the distant past and saw Denard break loose through the middle a couple of times.

The best way to defend "Shoelace" at that point is to say disciplined and don't over pursue. Keep with your assignment and not all will be lost.

2. Look For An Offensive Spark

Illinois has had next to zero offense so far this season. When I first started noticing back in the beginning of the season, I thought for sure it was just a fluke thing. I mean, an offense featuring Nathan Scheelhaase surely couldn't struggle so much, right? Think again.
Other than a 44-0 blow out of Charleston Southern -- yeah, me neither -- the most points the Illini has put up is 24 points. They rank 83rd in passing yards, 96th in rushing yards, and 103rd in points per game. It just hasn't been pretty. Or even close.

I think the best chance for Illinois to get that much needed spark on offense is to try and establish a run game, then take the shots down field. Running back Donovonn Young looks to be the best threat at this point, and if this is the week Scheelhaase can get his legs to work, the Illini could get some things moving on the ground.


In 2010, the Wolverines won a thriller 67-65 in triple overtime, which was also the much desired 6th win for bowl eligibility. I don't expect quite the offense this time around, but I would frankly be shocked if Illinois pulled off the upset. I'll take Michigan, 45-17.

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