Just a few weeks ago, the Illinois game was shaping up to be a test for the No. 3 Michigan football team ahead of The Game. While the Wolverines have made short work of their Big Ten competition each week, the Fighting Illini had looked feisty. Entering Week 10, Illinois was 7-1 and primed to run away with the Big Ten West.
But the bottom has fallen out for Illinois in its last two games. Back-to-back home losses against Michigan State and Purdue have left the Illini reeling, suddenly locked in a four way tie for first place in their division.
Regardless, Michigan cannot overlook Illinois and its potent rushing attack. The Wolverines made it clear before the season that beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten are two of their biggest goals. Accomplishing those tasks, though, becomes a lot more difficult if they slip up this weekend.
As Michigan prepares for their final game in the Big House this season, The Daily breaks down three things to watch for:
Can the defense contain Chase Brown?
Michigan has flexed its running prowess week after week, but the Illini have built its offense around a similar blueprint. Running back Chase Brown leads the nation with 1,442 rushing yards this season. Brown was hobbled against the Boilermakers but is expected to play this weekend, and if he gets going downhill, the Illinois offense becomes a lot more dangerous.
“Our run wall has been very good,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s going to be tested this week probably like none other up to this point. Illinois is very strong at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Outstanding, outstanding runs scheme, outstanding running back. So it’ll be a real challenge.”
The Wolverines have been up for every challenge so far, stymying rushing attacks all season. They currently boast the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 72.7 yards per game on the ground. But the Illini, who average 183.6 rushing yards, have found ways to move the ball all year with little resistance — so something will have to give.
The last time Michigan faced running talent of this caliber was against Penn State and its pair of freshman backs. In that game, the defense held the duo to just 35 yards combined.
If Illinois wants to stick around in the game, sustaining drives with back-breaking rushes is a good formula to do so. If the Wolverines’ front seven can dominate the line of scrimmage, however, it’s going to be difficult for the Illini to move the ball. Ultimately, this game will be won in the trenches.
Can the passing game get going?
Last week, after sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy had another lackluster passing game, players and coaches insisted that the offense was clicking in practice and it just hadn’t translated in a game yet. But with just two weeks left in the regular season, it’s safe to wonder if that moment will ever come.
Michigan knows it can run the ball and doesn’t need to lean on its passing game. It’s a formula that worked last year as well, and the Wolverines don’t seem particularly concerned about deviating from that plan.
“It’s just kind of a feel for the game,” Michigan co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said Wednesday. “You get to a game and you run the ball and (get) five yards a carry and six, and seven and eight and nine, it’s like why do anything else?”
That stubbornness has worked thus far. The Wolverines, though, could benefit from a contingency plan. Against Illinois, which is allowing just 85.9 rushing yards per game, they may face more resistance in the run game than they’re accustomed to. If junior running back Blake Corum can’t get going like he usually does, the onus falls on McCarthy to move the ball through the air.
“We feel like we’re gonna do whatever it takes to win — run, throw,” Moore said. “We feel like we can be balanced in every area and we’re just gonna keep doing whatever we can do to get to 11-0 this week.”
Michigan doesn’t need to play a perfect game this week to reach that 11-win mark. Whether or not McCarthy can finally connect on some big plays, though, will be telling for the Wolverines’ offensive prospects moving forward.
Will Michigan get caught looking ahead to The Game?
It’s the elephant in the room.
All season, Michigan and Ohio State have been on a collision course heading towards their colossal Nov. 26 tilt. If both teams take care of business this weekend, it will be an undefeated matchup for the first time since 2006 — with major College Football Playoff implications, too.
But none of that matters if the Wolverines get caught looking ahead. If Michigan comes out flat-footed with its minds already focused on next week, Illinois will be ripe to take advantage.
“(Ohio State) is a team that we think about all the time, but to me, it’s a total shortchange of who we’re playing this week,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said Wednesday “We’ve got the leading rusher in college football walking in here to our stadium on Saturday. And he has our full attention right now.”
It appears the Wolverines are in the right headspace for their matchup. But once the game starts it could be a different story. Slow starts have already plagued the Wolverines throughout the season, necessitating strong second halves to surge ahead. Those problems could be magnified with the showdown in Columbus looming.
If everything goes according to plan, Michigan will win on Saturday with relative ease. But if the team dwells on the idea of going into Columbus undefeated — before that proposition has actually come to fruition — it could find itself in trouble.