Breakdown: Michigan vs. Illinois

BY IAN ROBINSON AND NATE SANDALS
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 1, 2008

Michigan rushing offense versus Illinois rushing defense

If you just go by the stats, this is a battle of mediocrity. The Michigan rushing offense ranks 10th in the Big Ten. The Fighting Illini hold the same ranking in rushing defense.
But the Wolverines have shown plenty of potential in the ground game. If it can find a rhythm, Michigan has a chance to change the game with its rushing attack.

Expect to see more of Brandon Minor this week after his solid performance against Wisconsin. Sam McGuffie will continue to get the most carries for the Wolverines and Michael Shaw should be at or near 100 percent for the first time since the season opener.

Should Michigan establish the running game, they'll likely have more success in putting drives together. And should the Wolverines get in trouble, Illinois' poor defense may bail them out, allowing teams to convert 42 percent of the time on third down.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan passing offense versus Illinois passing defense

The Michigan coaching staff would love to see redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet come out and play solid for a full 60 minutes.

So far this season, Threet has been the epitome of inconsistency. He looked like a decent Division-I quarterback in the second half against Wisconsin, but that was just minutes after he led the Wolverine offense through one of the worst halves of football in recent memory.

Threet may struggle through the air against the Fighting Illini. Junior Vontae Davis is a stalwart in the secondary for Illinois and he will have Threet thinking twice before he throws in that direction.

The loss of Junior Hemingway to mononucleosis does nothing but restrict Michigan’s already stagnant passing attack.

Edge: Illinois

Illinois passing game vs. Michigan passing defense

Scoring has not been a problem for the Illini. They are second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (33.2 points per game), and that starts with quarterback Juice Williams. Williams will be the first true dual-threat quarterback the Michigan defense faces and leads the conference in total offense. Michigan had trouble in the past containing mobile quarterbacks. On the outside, Williams has one of the best receivers in the Big Ten in sophomore Arrelious Benn, who is coming off a career-best 110-yard performance against Penn State.

Whether the front four can get to Williams and keep contain will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the afternoon. The Michigan pass defense starts up front. During Wisconsin's last-minute comeback attempt, junior defensive end Brandon Graham had two sacks and forced a fumble on one of them. On Wisconsin’s final two-point conversion attempt, true freshman defensive tackle Mike Martin got pressure on the quarterback, coming off a double team.

Edge: Michigan

Illinois rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense

Michigan might be second in the conference in rush defense, but some have called this statistic misleading because it includes sack yardage. Correcting for sack yards, the Wolverines are third in the conference against the run.

Illinois’ leading running back Daniel Dufrene (not to be confused with Andy) is averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He sprained his left shoulder at Penn State last week but still carried for 96 yards. Williams is Illinois’ other ground threat. In recent years, Michigan has had trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks. This will be this team’s first opportunity.

Edge: Michigan

Special Teams

The key for Michigan is to hold on to the ball on returns. Illinois has the worst kick coverage in the Big Ten, allowing opponents more than 26 yards per return on average.
But Michigan has been fumbling on returns far too often and if it doesn’t clean up the act, the defense will continue to be put in bad spots.

Jason Gingell took over on kickoffs for K.C. Lopata against Wisconsin. He was impressive, especially on a booming kick into the endzone after Michigan cut the deficit to five points in the fourth quarter.

Edge: Push

Intangibles:

Last year, the Illini blew an 11-point lead to the Wolverines on a nationally televised Saturday night game. They’re also coming off a tough road loss at Penn State last week. Illinois already has two losses, and a third will send this highly hyped team on the road to a disappointing season.

The Wolverines are coming off the first big win of the Rich Rodriguez era. The question will be whether they can ride the momentum from the second-half comeback or come out deflated.

Edge: Push

Prediction: Michigan wins 27-24.