CHAMPAIGN — For a time, it all went down as easily as it should have. Michigan marched down the field on the first drive of Saturday’s game against Illinois, running the ball five consecutive times for 65 yards, capped by an impressive 29-yard touchdown run from junior Hassan Haskins.
The Wolverines didn’t throw the ball until their ninth play from scrimmage, tallied 161 rushing yards in the first quarter alone and held a 28-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter.
It looked every bit the contender-meets-pretender matchup it had been billed. This game was dead, buried and sufficiently eulogized. It was on to Penn State.
And then, like The Undertaker rising swiftly from his coffin, Illinois found life.
In doing so — scoring 25 unanswered points and coming within three points of the lead, briefly putting Michigan’s season on life support — the Fighting Illini resurfaced a bevy of questions on both sides of the ball that have come to define the Michigan football season to date. Questions that will soon bury it if they don’t get answered. Promptly.
“Honestly, most of the defense, we kinda lost our heads a little bit,” said sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone after the game. “Like yelling at the offense, which we can’t do. But yeah, it was kinda like breaking down, but we all talked and we all kinda got back into our heads.”
Those frustrations reached a boiling point, he said, after Illinois cashed in a two-point conversation to make the score 28-25. After allowing just 29 yards on the first seven drives, Michigan’s defense yielded four consecutive scoring drives that amassed 214 yards in over 14 minutes of game time.
Offensively, Michigan did nothing to aid its scuffling defense. From the 4:33 mark in the second quarter — when a touchdown from senior tight end Nick Eubanks extended the lead to 28 — to the end of the third quarter, the Wolverines’ offense mustered just 2.5 yards per play in five empty drives. The capper was a lost fumble, Michigan’s ninth of the season, that gave Illinois the ball in the Wolverines’ territory.
“In the running game, they made a nice adjustment with their defensive end,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Then we made a counter adjustment later in the ball game that really paid off for us. They were spiking their end hard and got us for a few. Then I thought (offensive coordinator) Josh (Gattis) and (offensive line coach) Ed (Warinner) and the coaches did a nice job countering that and they were able to get outside again with some big runs.”
The halftime break, sandwiched in between, did nothing to quell the resurgent Illini — the same group that lost to Ypsilanti-based Eastern Michigan earlier this season. Guided by backup quarterback Matt Robinson, who filled in for the injured Brandon Peters, Illinois appeared on the verge of quite an upset.
“Yeah, a little bit (of frustration),” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “Any time you’ve got a lead like that coming out of the second half, you’ve got to keep the foot on the pedal and full-throttle. Sometimes in a game, that happens like that. (We’ve) just got to stay within ourselves.”
There were no major scheme adjustments, McGrone said, nor a natural lack of focus. That’s when defensive coordinator Don Brown gathered his defense to try and rejuvenate a suddenly-reeling group.
“He just told us to lock in, play our game and we’ll come out with a win,” McGrone said.
To its credit, the unit responded.
Michigan allowed just six more plays in the ensuing three drives — with two turnovers sealing the game. One came when McGrone grabbed ahold of a scrambling Robinson with his left hand and punched the football out with his right. The next when pressure off both edges helped pry the ball free, where in feel into the waiting arms of senior Carlo Kemp.
Michigan’s defense allowed negative-21 yards after Brown’s recalibration, closing out a forgettable win over an inferior foe. Now the real challenges beckon, with Penn State and Notre Dame looming in back-to-back games, ready to unearth any facade that might come with a 5-1 record. If Saturday’s game clarified anything about this team, it’s that the Wolverines have not moved past their sluggish past in any substantial way. Soon enough, with mounting competition, that will reflect in their win-loss record.
For now, until those tests arrive, Michigan will happily notch another in the former column.
“Third quarter, they made some plays and we did turn it over,” Harbaugh said. “And our guys rose to the challenge. They were tested mightily and they did a great job. Didn’t flinch, kept playing, kept fighting.”