With Illinois’ third-string quarterback starting against the No. 1 defense in the country, the results of Saturday’s game at Michigan Stadium were almost a foregone conclusion.
But what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh probably didn’t expect was to look up at the scoreboard heading into halftime and see that his team had allowed zero completed passes.
“That speaks volumes,” he said. “The pressure was good up front. I thought our guys really played well, executed extremely well. Really, (there were) just two plays that we did not defend well the entire ballgame, so I thought it was outstanding.”
Aside from two separate 43-yard passes to wide receiver Malik Turner that helped the Fighting Illini finish with 95 passing yards, Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. didn’t stand much of a chance the entire afternoon. Though he was only sacked one time, George was pressured by the Wolverines’ talented front seven all afternoon, with players like freshman defensive end Rashan Gary and redshirt sophomore defensive end Chase Winovich reaching him so quickly that he had no choice but to hurry his throws.
The throws that did make it into the air didn’t have much success either, with the secondary’s four seniors — cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling and safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill — holding George in check. Likely due to his All-American reputation, Lewis was barely targeted, but each of the other three recorded a pass breakup.
Thomas — who has dropped a number of potential interceptions over the past few years — made the biggest secondary play of the day in the second quarter. On the first play after Michigan punted for the first time, George attempted a screen pass, but Thomas read it perfectly and jumped in front of it for his first career pick.
“The first thing that went through my mind is, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Thomas said. “I knew that my teammates, every day they always make fun of me. ‘Dymonte, you can’t catch. You don’t have no hands.’ So as I caught that interception, they all said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna let you breathe, I’m gonna let you go. About time you caught it.’ It’s a pretty exciting feeling. I was pretty happy, pretty pumped.”
The secondary is talented enough to make plays on its own, but the defensive backs were quick to praise their pass rushers for making their jobs easier.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s blitz-heavy system has consistently kept opposing quarterbacks under duress, and the inexperienced George struggled to avoid the same fate. Thomas said the defensive backs knew George was capable of getting quick throws off, so they played tight coverage and waited for blitzing linemen and linebackers to create opportunities.
The Wolverines were especially clued into the Fighting Illini’s tendencies on third-down situations, where Illinois converted just two of 10 opportunities.
“Coach Brown always preaches, ‘Stop the run,’ and when you can stop the run like they do, and go out there and have the efficiency we do on the back end, what can the offense do?” Lewis said. “We just really take pride in what we do and execute. … That front seven is just unbelievable. It’s amazing. They definitely contribute to (the secondary’s) success.”
As for the few big plays allowed — such as Hill allowing Turner to outjump him for a 43-yard touchdown — Lewis preached the importance of keeping a short memory. The defensive backs have allowed some big plays before this season, most notably against Colorado’s talented receiving corps in the third game of the year, but they have yet to let a game spiral out of control.
According to Lewis, Hill shouldn’t have any trouble getting over the play, and Illinois’ late success through the air was simply a product of taking more chances. Still, given all the success it has had so far this season, Michigan’s defense has come to expect perfection.
“It bothers us as a defense,” Lewis said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for — a shutout.”