The No. 2 Michigan football team may not have turned in another historic rout on Saturday, but the outcome of its 41-8 win over Illinois was never in doubt. Though the Wolverines seemed to let up a little bit after leading 31-0 at the half, they rolled the Fighting Illini on both sides of the ball.
With a date in East Lansing next week — still an important rivalry game despite the Spartans’ five-game losing streak — here are five things we learned from Michigan’s latest dominant performance.
1. Wilton Speight has gotten better.
Coming off a bye week at the exact halfway point of the season, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight proved Saturday that he has learned from his first six games as the starter. Speight had one of his best games of the season against Illinois, claiming afterward that he watched every snap from the first half of the season over the break.
Speight completed 16 of 23 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, including a streak of seven straight completions in the first quarter. His passer rating reached the high 200s before ultimately landing at a still-outstanding 190.7 at the end of the game. More importantly, after making a few questionable decisions and inaccurate throws in the first half of the season, Speight showed dramatic improvement in his intermediate and deep passing game, where nearly all of his throws were right on the money. One of his best passes wasn’t even completed — he hit fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh directly in the hands on a 31-yard strike to the end zone, but the play was broken up by a defensive back.
2. Kenny Allen is keeping all three of his jobs, at least for now.
After Allen missed two field goals against Wisconsin three weeks ago, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opened up a kicking competition. The fifth-year senior has already been handling punt and kickoff duty as well, so Harbaugh reasoned that it might not be the worst idea to take the placekicking burden off his shoulders.
It appears that neither sophomore Ryan Tice nor freshman Quinn Nordin impressed enough to earn the job, though, as Allen remained the go-to for all three phases on Saturday. The fifth-year senior didn’t face much adversity, as both of his field-goal attempts were under 30 yards, but he made them both easily — perhaps a sign that his confidence is coming back.
Harbaugh also pointed out two weeks ago that the coaching staff had identified a timing problem that could have contributed to Allen’s struggles, so Saturday could be an indicator that the issue has been fixed.
3. Jabrill Peppers will get plenty of chances to make his Heisman case.
If Peppers really needs to pad his offensive stats to win the Heisman Trophy, this game showed that he will get plenty of chances going forward. The redshirt sophomore linebacker lined up as both a wildcat quarterback and a running back on the Wolverines’ first drive Saturday, with Michigan giving him every chance to add another offensive touchdown. Illinois seemed to be ready for Peppers, though, holding him to just 14 total yards of offense.
Still, Peppers took more offensive snaps in the second quarter, even with the Wolverines leading 21-0 and 28-0. His status as a primarily defensive player might hurt him in the Heisman race, but he certainly won’t lose because Harbaugh didn’t give him enough offensive opportunities.
4. The running back situation is fluid.
Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley’s rotation of backs continues to evolve, and he showed Saturday that he’s willing to ride the hot hand if necessary. Heading into the game, the Wolverines’ stable of four backs — senior De’Veon Smith, redshirt junior Ty Isaac, sophomore Karan Higdon and freshman Chris Evans — had a relatively level rotation, with no single back receiving a majority of carries.
The disparity was a little wider on Saturday, especially in the first half. Evans left the game in the first quarter after taking a hard hit to the head that temporarily knocked him out, leaving Michigan with three backs for the remainder of the game. In his absence, the Wolverines relied on Smith more heavily than his counterparts, giving him 14 carries that amounted to 59 yards and a touchdown.
Isaac and Higdon wound up getting more opportunities late in the game, but the early and unusual reliance on Smith stood out. The running back situation will likely remain equally unpredictable going forward, and not just because of Evans’ uncertain status — Smith said that, no matter the game or situation, the running backs have no idea how many carries they each will get.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Michigan’s defense and special teams outscore Michigan State.
Six weeks ago, this would have seemed impossible. But after a five-game Michigan State losing streak in which it mustered just six points against Wisconsin and gave up 54 to Northwestern, Michigan will be licking its chops heading into next weekend.
The Wolverines’ defense and special teams units have combined to score 14 points against Hawaii and 17 against Colorado. The Spartans have an uncertain quarterback situation, a struggling offensive line, a minus-4 turnover margin and a 70th-ranked special teams squad (according to ESPN’s efficiency statistic).
It’s often impossible to predict what will happen in a rivalry game, especially on the road, but Michigan’s offense won’t be the only unit finding the end zone if Michigan State’s struggles continue.