The Michigan football team is through the front half of the season with an unblemished 6-0 record. And only now are the third-ranked Wolverines getting fully healthy.
They are coming off a bye week and, before that, a 78-0 road thrashing of Rutgers in which the starters played only the first half. Other than season-ending injuries to fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark and sophomore offensive tackle Grant Newsome, Michigan’s players say they have regained their legs after a week off.
Their next opponent, Illinois, will be playing its second straight road game, this time in front of more than twice as many fans as last week at Rutgers. The rest should be just one of the many advantages the Wolverines have against the Fighting Illini (1-2 Big Ten, 2-4 overall) this weekend on homecoming. Here’s a breakdown:
Michigan rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense
Who will Michigan’s running back of choice be this week? The Wolverines continue their revolving door at the position, cycling between senior De’Veon Smith, redshirt junior Ty Isaac, freshman Chris Evans and sophomore Karan Higdon.
Three of those four have reached the 100-yard mark in a game this season — and Isaac fell a yard short against Rutgers — but only once has one of them carried more than 13 times in a game. It’s possible a fifth back could even enter the fold this weekend if fifth-year senior Drake Johnson makes his 2016 debut, though his first action of the season wouldn’t be too strenuous.
The division of carries going forward seems to be based on a combination of the week of practice, the hot hand and the feel for the game. Most of those decisions have paid off this season, as Michigan amassed 481 yards on the ground against Rutgers, vaulting the offense into 15th place in the country in rushing yards per game.
That number is a bit skewed because of the last performance, but the Wolverines still hold an advantage over Illinois. The Fighting Illini rank 86th against the run and have surrendered an average of 224.2 yards in their five games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents this year.
They do have 50 tackles for loss in six games under former NFL head coach Lovie Smith. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, son of Illinois’ defensive coordinator of the same name, has a team-high 58 tackles (3.5 for loss) and will be the biggest threat to watch against Michigan’s ground game.
Michigan pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense
Between blowouts in the first and most recent games of the season, redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight settled into a groove during a four-game stretch. He hovered around the 60-percent completion mark and limited his interceptions. He hasn’t been tested much yet — and that shouldn’t change this weekend.
In the Rutgers game, Speight threw just 13 passes, one for a touchdown, and then he had last week off. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has expressed concern about how his team performs in the weeks before and after the bye, but Michigan’s opponents have not often interrupted Speight’s rhythm this year.
If the Fighting Illini can do that, though, that might be their best chance to win. Smith’s teams have always placed an emphasis on forcing turnovers — that knack once carried the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl — and Illinois has started on that trend. Darius Mosely has two of the Illini’s six interceptions and has returned one for a 78-yard touchdown.
A big play like that early would help Illinois garner some momentum at Michigan Stadium, so it will be Speight’s job to avoid giving that opportunity.
Illinois rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Illinois’ carousel of running backs looks similar to Michigan’s, though the output has not been as fruitful. Kendrick Foster leads the Fighting Illini with 384 rushing yards in six games and scored both a rushing and a receiving touchdown in a win at Rutgers last week. Reggie Corbin is Illinois’ best big-play threat, with 35 carries at 9.3 yards apiece this year. Ke’Shawn Vaughn adds depth off the bench with 221 yards. All three are gaining at least five yards per carry.
And then there is the quarterback position. First-string signal caller Wes Lunt won’t scramble, but Lunt is still questionable to play with an injury. If the Fighting Illini turn to their other option, redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch, they’ll have a dual threat in the game. Crouch ranks fourth on the team with 176 yards and should see at least spot duty as a change of pace, even if Lunt is healthy enough to start.
All four of Illinois’ main rushers, though, are in for a tough matchup against Michigan’s defensive front. The Wolverines have 60 tackles for loss this year, 23 by their three starting linebackers and a team-high 10 by redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers.
Other than a 275-yard anomaly against Central Florida, Michigan has not given up more than 81 rushing yards in any game this season. That effort has been a central component to the defense’s success — when the Wolverines stop the run on first and second down, they put their opponent in uncomfortable situations on 3rd-and-long. Michigan’s top-ranked third-down defense again faces a good matchup with Illinois’ 120th-ranked third-down offense.
Illinois pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
This matchup depends largely on the starter under center for the Fighting Illini. Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, is an experienced quarterback with almost 1,000 career pass attempts to his name between Oklahoma State and Illinois. He has completed 60 percent of his passes this season with six touchdowns and just one interception.
Crouch, meanwhile, is more of a variable. He’s more of a run-first quarterback, and any one-dimensional offense going against Michigan’s defense is a risky proposition. He’s also a first-year starting quarterback, which typically doesn’t fare well against the Wolverines’ front.
Only one Illinois receiver has more than 106 yards on the season — Malik Turner, who has 427. Typically, the opponent’s top wideout draws Michigan All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis on the outside, so he’ll be tasked with locking down Turner.
The bigger defensive threat, though, is the pass rush. Fresh off a bye week, the Wolverines will again fire their full arsenal — fifth-year senior Chris Wormley, senior Taco Charlton and company. If they get to Crouch, they could rattle the young quarterback early. If they get to an ailing Lunt, they could force him out of the game, too.
Like almost every team in the country, Illinois just doesn’t have a proven big-play threat to counter Peppers. Mosely’s 11 punt returns have totaled just 60 yards, and Foster’s 14 kick returns have averaged 22.5. Without a threat to flip the field, the Fighting Illini might be at a disadvantage in field position. On the other side of the ball, they’ll have to decide whether to kick at Peppers or out of bounds away from him, and neither is an ideal option.
Illinois does have the statistical advantage in field-goal kicking. Chase McLaughlin has converted a solid nine of 12 attempts, while Michigan still has an issue at that position. The Wolverines’ last field goal came Sept. 17 against Colorado, and while he’s 0-for-2 in the past four weeks, fifth-year senior Kenny Allen is still the safe bet to kick if there’s an opportunity Saturday.
The effect of the bye week on Michigan remains to be seen. The Wolverines’ starters have played 30 minutes of football in the past two weeks, so they may have some rust to shake off early Saturday. It doesn’t hurt that they will be back in front of their home crowd on homecoming.
Illinois, meanwhile, hasn’t played in front of this Michigan Stadium crowd since 2012, when the Wolverines won, 45-0. The Fighting Illini’s last trip to a comparable site was a 55-14 loss to Ohio State in 2014.
Last time Michigan played at the Big House, the Wolverines polished off a 14-7 win against a good Wisconsin team to add more legitimacy to their College Football Playoff campaign. As they return to their home field, they now rank No. 3, their highest spot since 2006. Illinois is coming off its first Big Ten win of the season at Rutgers, but Michigan just has more to play for.
Prediction: Michigan 45, Illinois 7