CHAMPAIGN — Nick Eubanks didn’t have to break stride as Shea Patterson’s pass floated towards the back of the end zone and into his arms.
The only celebration necessary was a pair of chest thumps and a quick point to the sky, honoring his late mother. The groan from the Illinois fans was virtually non-existent. In the equal portion of the crowd donning maize and blue, cheers were similarly subdued.
With the score at 28-0 and less than half a game gone, it made sense, because this is Michigan and they are Illinois and this is what Michigan does to a team like Illinois. Or, at least, that’s what you’d like to believe.
Then, there’s the scene 20 minutes of game time later.
The Wolverines’ defensive line returned from giving up yet another touchdown with nothing to do but lean back into the benches lining Michigan’s sideline, faces expressionless as the scoreboard read, Michigan 28, Illinois 25.
The thing is: it wasn’t really the defense’s fault.
Of the Illini’s four scoring drives, only one started inside its own 33. The Wolverines lost a pair of fumbles and even when they held onto the ball, they couldn’t do anything with it. Illinois — 2-4 Illinois, lost-to-Eastern-Michigan Illinois — dominated time of possession as a result, wearing down a thin Michigan defense.
“In the second half, they came out and they hit us in the mouth,” said sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell, understating the obvious.
The Wolverines eventually held on to win on the back of a defensive turnaround that forced consecutive fourth-quarter turnovers. The result was a 42-25 win, allowing Michigan to talk about fighting through adversity and all those good things.
“Third quarter, we had a bit of a momentum swing and we just gotta be ready to roll with the punches, just react to it,” Patterson said. “Call it adversity or whatever you want, at the end of the day, we gotta be ready for anything.”
The problem is, this is week seven. Being ready for adversity was the mantra when the Wolverines beat Middle Tennessee State, 40-21. That was the opening week, when adjusting to a new offensive install was understandable, when discrepancies between practices and games made sense.
Michigan’s next two games are against Penn State and Notre Dame, teams who wouldn’t stand for “adversity” against an opponent like Illinois. Their offenses average 39.0 and 41.0 points per game respectively.
For a half on Saturday, that’s the type of offense the Wolverines looked like they had. Their running game — averaging just 3.5 yards per carry entering the day — went for 295 yards on 48 tries. Both freshman Zach Charbonnet and sophomore Hassan Haskins ran for over 100 yards, with the Illini defense on its heels against an offensive line that effortlessly created holes. “It starts up front,” said sophomore tight end Luke Schoonmaker. “Our line playing great ball, pushing guys back.”
Meanwhile, Patterson, much maligned for his senior-year regression, found receivers at will inside or outside the pocket. Even without junior receiver Nico Collins — arguably Michigan’s most talented playmaker — out injured, Patterson had two early touchdowns and found five receivers for completions.
“Shea Patterson had a great game,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Again, I don’t know what all the statistics and the numbers are, but that was tough throwing the ball today. And came up with the big throws.”
Those statistics and numbers tell the point. Patterson, with his 8.8 yards per attempt, four total touchdowns and no interceptions, did enough to beat a team like Illinois every time. With an 11-for-22 passing performance, he also put his defense in short-field situations too often, allowing the Illini back into a game that should’ve been over at halftime.
So while Patterson said after the game that he was “never worried,” he couldn’t help but break a sheepish smile seconds later, when a reporter asked if there were any offensive frustrations.
“Yeah a little bit,” Patterson said. “Any time you got a lead like that, coming out in the second half, you gotta keep the foot on the pedal, full throttle. But sometimes, in games, that happens like that.”
Saturday afternoon, Michigan didn’t keep its foot on the pedal. The result, in the end, allowed Patterson to shrug it off. It also showed how far the Wolverines still have to go.