CHAMPAIGN — Minutes before Illinois running back Jason Ford’s 79-yard touchdown run officially proved the Michigan football team had hit rock bottom, Greg Mathews took a knee on the sideline. He closed his eyes, hung his head and sighed heavily.
A few players and assistant coaches calmly tried to console him but were quickly dismissed. With three games left in his career — four, if the Wolverines can somehow scrape together one more win — and the season quickly spiraling out of control, Mathews had no words.
And who does? What’s left to say?
How do you justify Rich Rodriguez’s conference record, which now sits at 3-10 through 13 games? It took Lloyd Carr five-and-a-half seasons to rack up that many Big Ten losses, and Bo Schembechler coached for 10 years before his 10th defeat.
And it’s not as though Michigan is getting outplayed by the best of the best — three losses last year were against teams with sub-.500 records, and let’s not forget how epically bad this Illinois team really is.
The Fighting Illini have the worst scoring offense in the conference, mustering just 16 points a game. Michigan made them look good, with more than 500 yards of offense and 38 points.
The Illini have the worst scoring defense in the conference, giving up more than 27 points every game. Michigan put up just 13 and died whenever they sniffed the red zone.
And Illinois has the worst rushing defense in the conference, too. With four shots from the one-yard line, the Wolverines couldn’t even punch it in with a chance to go up 20-7.
The numbers are there: Michigan got dominated — thoroughly dominated — by a team that hadn’t beaten Football Bowl Subdivision competition in 364 days before Saturday.
As Ford broke through on the Illini’s final touchdown, shedding pathetic attempted tackles on the way, Mathews and his teammates saw how quickly this season (one that started so well, with four straight wins) was becoming a nightmare.
Martavious Odoms, who was forced to sit out because of injury, quietly stared at the Jumbotron, his mouth slightly open as Je’Ron Stokes patted him on the back. David Moosman scratched his beard in frustration. And the Michigan equipment managers starting packing up the team’s sideline early.
They were all forced to accept that Illinois — the team that was booed off the field by its home fans at halftime — didn’t do so much to win over the orange-clad faithful by the end of the game. The screaming throngs of happy fans knew the result was more about Michigan’s deficiencies than the Illini’s positives.
What was proven on Saturday is simple. Michigan is, for the first time I can ever remember, the worst team in the Big Ten, and it’s not getting any better.
So, where do the Wolverines go from here?
Michigan needs a win. Just one, any one will do. Next up is Purdue, which has the third-best passing attack in the Big Ten. That could be a problem — if you’re a Michigan fan, you’re well-versed in the secondary’s woes. Wisconsin is historically hard to beat in Camp Randall Stadium, and Ohio State is, well, Ohio State.
As the season moves forward, it's looking more and more impossible that Michigan will pick up its sixth win, which is a tough pill for the maize-and-blue faithful to swallow. And seeing how the Wolverines folded after the goal-line stand and Illinois 99-yard drive, both their motivation and drive has to be red-flagged.
“You get frustrated and you don’t know what to do, and the first thing you try to do is take the easy way out and just give up,” fifth-year senior Brandon Graham said. “And that’s not gonna happen. I can promise you that, we’re not gonna quit. We’re gonna keep coming every Saturday until it’s over.”
I believe Graham, one of the few Wolverines who has actually played up to expectations this season. The real question is if the rest of the team will follow his lead these next three weeks.
— Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org