All season long, the Nov. 26 matchup between Michigan and Ohio State has been anticipated as one of the biggest in The Game’s recent history. And there was only one matchup left before the journey to Columbus.
That one game, though, almost cost the Wolverines their undefeated status as No. 3 Michigan survived (11-0 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) Illinois (7-4, 4-4), 19-17, setting up a colossal showdown next weekend against the Buckeyes.
After the narrow win, how long did it take the Wolverines to set their sights on The Game?
“Once the clock hit zero,” graduate receiver Ronnie Bell said after the game. “This is what we’ve been striving for all year, 11-0 to get there, and now we get to play the game. That’s all we wanted.”
In order for the Wolverines to get to Columbus undefeated, they had to beat the Fighting Illini. And that was a task much easier said than done.
Following an underwhelming first half in which Michigan scored its sole touchdown and witnessed an injury to junior running back and Heisman hopeful Blake Corum, the Wolverines appeared flat. After a 37-yard rush by Illinois’ star running back Chase Brown to put the Illini up by seven in the third quarter, the Big House was hushed.
Michigan was down a touchdown in the second half, a position it hadn’t been in all year. Not only that, but sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy couldn’t get anything going in the air while the Wolverines were without many key contributors including their offensive focal point, Corum.
For much of the second half, Michigan was in danger of being upset. Without Corum, the Wolverines’ offense looked like a shell of its former self. Compounding that, when their offense did find some success, it could never fully cash in.
This was the first time all season that Michigan played a contentious fourth quarter. Is it a red flag for what’s to come, or valuable practice in a close-game situation?
The Wolverines certainly want to think it was the latter.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” graduate receiver Ronnie Bell said after the game. “The amount of work we put in, it almost sucks sometimes when you win by a bunch and don’t get to play the full four quarters.”
Against the Illini, Michigan got to play a full four quarters, but they were far from its best ones of the season. After 10 games of domination, the Wolverines were on their back foot and trailed for most of the second half. Following Brown’s second touchdown, Michigan didn’t retake the lead until a 35-yard field goal from graduate kicker Jake Moody with nine seconds remaining.
“(We have) just tremendous faith in (Moody),” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “… When he came into the locker room, every guy was chanting his name.”
Moody’s four second-half field goals carried the day for the Wolverines. And Michigan’s offense found just enough success to labor to a victory.
It wasn’t pretty, though. Against Illinois, the Wolverines didn’t really look like the team that had dominated the ten games before, like the No. 3 team in the nation. More questions were raised than answered in the week leading up to The Game.
Michigan’s passing attack floundered once again, its offensive line didn’t get the same push it usually does and its offense as a whole looked mostly one-dimensional. It’s hard to gauge what that all could mean right now, but Michigan is 11-0 for the first time since 2006 and is set up for one of the biggest clashes with its arch-rival in recent history. The questions posed by the Illini will have an answer in some shape or form next weekend.
When the pressure was on, and their season on the line, the Wolverines did just enough to stay the course, to keep every goal in front of them.
Just in time for a trip to Columbus.