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Breakdown: Michigan positioned to roll through visiting Fighting Illini

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 11, 2012

Let’s be clear from the outset: Illinois will have to do just about everything right on Saturday to topple the No. 25 Michigan football team.

It’s not an impossible matchup, but the Fighting Illini (0-2 Big Ten, 2-4 overall) have the worst offense and worst defense statistically in the conference, scoring 21.2 points per game and allowing 28.3.

Michigan (1-0, 3-2), on the other hand, has played stiffer competition yet still stands in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. With losses to two ranked opponents under their belts, the Wolverines have averaged 31.6 points per game and allowed 21.0 points per game.

Regardless of the statistics, the game will be played, and we’re here to break it down. Michigan and Illinois will take the field at Michigan Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.

Michigan pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

This is probably the closest pairing heading into Saturday, and it’s a battle of weaknesses.

Senior quarterback Denard Robinson, offensive coordinator Al Borges and the Michigan offense aren’t known for their pass-happy ways. Robinson is a danger to dash out of the pocket and beat defenses on the ground, but he’s struggled in the passing game throughout his career.

This fall, Robinson has thrown eight interceptions on just 115 pass attempts — only Auburn’s Kiehl Frazier has a higher interception rate in more than 100 pass attempts. A 44-13 victory over Purdue in West Lafayette last weekend was the second time in the last 13 games that Robinson didn’t throw an interception.

The debate, though, is whether the Fighting Illini secondary can capitalize on Robinson’s weakness in the air game. Their track record answers “probably not.”

Illinois has allowed 226.8 passing yards per game, and since picking off three passes in the season opener against Western Michigan, it has forced just one interception in the last five games.

Edge: Push

Michigan rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

You know where this is going.

The Wolverines have Robinson, one of the most dynamic sprinters in college football, to go to in the backfield. He is flanked by redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Both accumulated over 1,000 yards rushing last season, but it’s been a one-sided affair this fall.

The Michigan offense has averaged 208.4 yards per game this season, and Robinson averages 135.2 of those yards. Toussaint, after missing the season opener due to a suspension, has spun his tires, gaining just 42.2 yards per game.

The Wolverines undoubtedly will continue to try and get Toussaint up and running on Saturday against an Illinois front that’s allowed 124.5 rushing yards per game and a Big Ten-high 11 rushing touchdowns.

The Michigan backfield tandem should do just fine to carry the offense past Illinois if Robinson doesn’t find success through the air.

Edge: Michigan

Illinois pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Like the Wolverines, the Fighting Illini have an offense dominated by the run, especially with junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase at the helm.

Scheelhaase, who was spelled by sophomore Reilly O’Toole early in the season, is a dual-threat quarterback that Michigan coach Brady Hoke has keyed in on during game week. Hoke said he had the defense playing a ‘chase the rabbit,’ drill this week to prepare for Scheelhaase.

But Scheelhaase’s passing has leveled out as mediocre at best. Scheelhaase has maintained a completion percentage of just over 62 percent during two seasons as a starter, but he has thrown five interceptions and just three touchdowns this fall.

Scheelhaase’s favorite target is junior Ryan Lankford, who has collected 25 catches for 362 yards and five touchdowns.

Across the line of scrimmage, Michigan’s defense has been unbreakable in the passing game. The secondary has allowed just 155.0 yards per game this fall, good for first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally.

Despite the defensive line’s lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defense has managed more interceptions (4) than passing touchdowns (3) this fall.

Edge: Michigan

Illinois rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Here’s a matchup of major weakness and relative weakness.

The major weakness is Illinois’s running game, led by redshirt freshman tailback Josh Ferguson and sophomore tailback Donovonn Young. Ferguson has taken over as the starter this fall, but the Fighting Illini rank last in the Big Ten averaging just 126.5 rushing yards per game.

Michigan’s front seven, though, has also struggled. The statistics may be slightly skewed because the Wolverines allowed 290 yards to the triple-option offense of Air Force in week two, but Michigan also allowed 232 rushing yards to No. 1 Alabama in the season opener.

The Wolverines have held opponents to 112, 94 and 56 rushing yards and only one touchdown in the last three games against Massachusetts, Notre Dame and Purdue.

Given the defensive corps’ recent stonewalling, the Michigan defense takes the advantage against Illinois’s rushing attack.

Edge: Michigan

Special Teams

Michigan redshirt junior kicker Brendan Gibbons (6-for-8 on field goals) gets the edge over Illinois’ duo of freshman Taylor Zalewski (2-for-4) and sophomore Nick Immekus (1-for-2). Gibbons was 3-for-4 in Michigan’s win over Purdue on Saturday, and his only miss, a 44-yard attempt, plunked off the bottom crossbar and landed short.

Junior punter Will Hagerup is tops in the nation averaging 49.7 yards per punt, over 13 yards better per punt than last season.

Though neither team has returned a kickoff for a touchdown, Michigan freshman Dennis Norfleet has returned five kicks for over 30 yards, while Illinois hasn’t had a single 30-yard return.

Edge: Michigan

Intangibles

Hoke is a perfect 10-0 at home since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Michigan is coming off a blowout victory over Purdue to start the Big Ten season and hasn’t lost to Illinois since 2009. The defense is rounding into form and so are Robinson and the offense.

It’s all leaning Michigan’s way.

Edge: Michigan

FINAL SCORE: Michigan 35, Illinois 17


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