CHAMPAIGN — For all the pent-up concern about this Michigan football team, there was never much of a question as to whether it would beat Illinois on Saturday. The question lay in the “how” of it.
For a time, it seemed like Michigan (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) might answer that question emphatically, beating down Illinois and taking momentum into a trip to Penn State next week. But it’s hard to be optimistic after a second half in which the offense stalled, the defense let Illinois back into the game and the Wolverines needed late heroics in a 42-25 win over the Illini.
Those late heroics came on both sides of the ball. Once Illinois had cut into a 28-0 lead to make it a three-point game early in the fourth quarter, senior quarterback Shea Patterson strung together a 10-play drive, converting a key fourth-and-2 in the red zone with his legs and lofting a pass that found junior wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones in the corner of the end zone.
That brought the lead back to 10 and from there, it was the defense’s turn. Sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone and fifth-year senior defensive end Mike Danna forced fumbles on two consecutive Illinois drives, killing any chance of a comeback and securing the win.
“The things I’m proud of as a team is — there wasn’t this, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They rose up and got a few fumbles of our own.”
Still, especially against Illinois, a perennial Big Ten doormat with a 2-4 overall record, it’s hard to square the victory itself with everything that made it so hard to get.
On paper, this should have been easy for Michigan, and for the first half, it was. The offense ran the ball straight down Illinois’ throat, passing last week’s rushing yards total by the end of their fourth drive. Patterson worked off that success, hitting sophomore Luke Schoonmaker and senior Nick Eubanks for touchdowns to make the lead to 28-7 at halftime.
Then it nearly fell apart. The offense fell back into its struggles after Illinois started slanting a defensive end hard in the run game. Patterson’s rhythm seemed off in the passing game, and the Wolverines didn’t score in the third quarter as its defense gave up 10 more points.
Suddenly, minutes into the fourth, senior running back Tru Wilson fumbled — the same issues that have haunted Michigan all year cropping up again. Illinois running back Dre Brown scored and then converted a two-point attempt to make it 28-25 with 12:50 to go.
“Anytime you got a lead like that, coming out of the second half you gotta keep the foot on the pedal and in full throttle,” Patterson said, admitting there was frustration. “But sometimes in a game, it happens like that and just gotta stay within ourselves.”
Michigan did, but still, the tune felt familiar. Here the Wolverines were, again, fumbling the ball, playing down to an opponent and taking a win that felt just a little bit hollow.
“I think it was after they scored a two-point conversion, everybody kinda started wilding up and not really trusting each other at that moment,” McGrone said. “But I think we got back to the sideline, got to talk. It’s all good.”
It was an oddly candid moment from McGrone, who admitted things started to break down with the defense yelling at the offense as others continued to speak in the language of optimism and positivity.
To be sure, there are positives to take. A season-high average of 6.1 yards per carry behind Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins — and a first-half stretch in which Josh Gattis’ offense seemed to work as intended. Another standout performance from sophomore wideout Ronnie Bell, who went for 98 yards as Nico Collins sat out with an injury. Another game in which the defense stepped up when asked.
Harbaugh, standing at the podium afterwards with his hands in his pockets, seemed genuine in his praise. “Pleased with the way the offense played,” he said. “Thought they performed extremely well.”
Michigan will take the win. But to meet any of their preseason goals, the Wolverines must navigate a gauntlet that still includes Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.
“Our guys rose to the challenge,” Harbaugh said. “They were tested mightily and they did a great job. Didn’t flinch, kept playing, kept fighting.”
But when the challenge gets greater — starting next week in State College — it could take a whole lot more to meet it.