Halfway through the fourth quarter, sophomore Karan Higdon broke loose down the right sideline and cut inward at Illinois’ 10-yard line while dodging defenders, leaping into the end zone for the No. 3 Michigan football team’s final score of the game.
It was just one highlight on a successful day for the Wolverines (4-0 Big Ten, 7-0 overall). Two weeks after crushing Rutgers 78-0, Michigan picked up where it left off, holding the Fighting Illini (1-3, 2-5) to just 172 yards to win 41-8 on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight had one of his best games of the season, going 16-for-23 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Higdon impressed as well, leading the running backs with 106 yards, 45 of which came on his touchdown run.
“The entire game, I thought Wilton Speight may have had one of his best games,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “It was pretty windy out there — it was tough to throw the ball. … He was throwing the intermediate-deep stuff. Thirty-yard throws, 35 yards, 40-yard throws. Just on the money. It was impressive.”
Illinois finally got on the board in the fourth quarter when Fighting Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. completed a 43-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Malik Turner after Michigan botched a fake punt on the play before.
The Wolverines were already ahead comfortably, though, thanks to a high-scoring first quarter.
The flashiest play of the first half came on the first drive. After lining up for his usual jet sweep, freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom reversed direction, caught a pass from Speight and ran for 33 yards to set up Michigan’s first score of the game.
After redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers carried the ball twice to help move the Wolverines to Illinois’ 3-yard line, Michigan ran its “train” formation to fluster Illinois’ defense. Butt managed to find open space, and Speight connected with him for a 3-yard touchdown pass to put the Wolverines up 7-0.
Michigan’s scariest moment occurred on the following possession, when freshman running back Chris Evans lay motionless on the ground after a hard hit from two Illinois defenders. Evans was able to get up with the help of trainers but went to the locker room immediately following the hit.
The Wolverines resumed their dominance on the following play, though, when redshirt freshman tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. scored his first career touchdown on a 21-yard catch.
“I wanted to keep the football,” Wheatley said. “I didn’t let it go of it for a while. Everyone was jumping on me and slapping me in the head and stuff, and the ref was like, ‘I need the ball,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, here you go.’ I didn’t really want to let it go.”
Redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill notched the final touchdown of the first quarter on his signature play — a 1-yard run — for his ninth touchdown of the season.
The second quarter started just as strong as the first, when just over a minute into the second quarter, freshman safety Khaleke Hudson deflected a punt to give the Wolverines the ball on Michigan’s 38-yard line.
That led to senior running back De’Veon Smith’s four-yard scoring run that put the Wolverines up 28-0 with 11 minutes left in the second quarter. Smith had 18 carries for 76 yards.
“I thought De’Veon was in a really good flow, good rhythm,” Harbaugh said. “Running hard (and) breaking tackles. We went more than what was planned with him, back to calling the same play, calling his number … based on how he was doing.”
While the offense impressed with 561 total yards, the special teams and defense made some big plays, too. Senior safety Dymonte Thomas picked off Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. to set up Michigan’s final score of the first half.
“Dymonte was outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “He read the screen as good as you can read it. He leapt up and made a great interception. I think Jourdan Lewis was applying pressure on the play. It was outstanding. We needed that turnover.”
Though the Wolverines weren’t challenged often, they did give Illinois a few chances. Fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson fumbled on Michigan’s 37, but the defense then stopped the Fighting Illini on four straight plays to regain possession. The Wolverines’ biggest misstep came in the fourth quarter, when the botched fake punt gave the Fighting Illini great field position at the Michigan 43-yard line.
But in a game when Illinois’ first completion didn’t come until four minutes into the third quarter — a gain erased by a fumble three plays later — the Wolverines were never threatened.