As noon approaches Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find yourself in front a TV.
You won’t quite know why, with Oklahoma-Texas just a few channels away, but you’ll be tuned into No. 16 Michigan’s trip to Illinois.
The Fighting Illini haven’t eclipsed .500 since 2007 and carry a three-game losing streak that began with a 34-31 indignity against Eastern Michigan nearly a month ago. Tickets for their season finale are currently going for $8 on StubHub, if you need a sense of the fanbase’s current enthusiasm. Their one ostensible hope at the beginning of the season, former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters, is questionable with an upper-body injury.
And yet, football season is 12 games, so you’ll be watching anyway, eager to see whether the Wolverines win by 20 or 30.
And when you do, you’ll want something to keep your interest after Michigan goes up multiple scores. The Daily breaks down what to watch for:
Michigan’s quarterback play
On the first play of Michigan’s third drive against Iowa last weekend, Shea Patterson dropped back and unleashed a deep bomb. Fifty-one yards downfield, Nico Collins beat his defender on a post route, catching the ball in stride and taking the Wolverines into the red zone for a second consecutive drive.
That was with 10:30 left in the first half. For the rest of the game, Patterson completed just 12 of 20 passes for 94 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception.
The result was the worst passer rating of his Michigan career, continuing a season in which he’s down in nearly every statistical category — except interceptions. Then, Tuesday evening, Patterson came out and said he’s content with his play and that the Wolverines’ offense — averaging 7.2 fewer points per game than last season — is “right where we want to be,” citing discrepancies between the practice and game products.
Saturday against Illinois, Michigan will have its next opportunity to translate that product.
There’s a limit, of course, to how much the Wolverines can show against a team that ranks 98th in passing yards per attempt allowed. Two weeks ago against Rutgers, Patterson had his best game of the season, seemingly turning a corner before struggling against Iowa.
Still, Saturday is another chance to show his ability to perform in Josh Gattis’ offense and build momentum going into next week’s trip to No. 10 Penn State.
The running game’s effectiveness
Early in Michigan’s win over Iowa, the Wolverines’ offense found consistent success thanks to a healthy run game. When freshman running back Zach Charbonnet punched into the end zone to give Michigan a 10-0 lead, he had five carries for 27 yards and looked good doing it.
Pregame talk over an even carry split between Charbonnet, sophomore Hassan Haskins and sophomore Christian Turner had dissolved into Charbonnet’s day and it was working.
Three hours later, a look down at the stat sheet revealed the Wolverines had just 3.6 yards per carry. The scariest part is that’s their highest average since finishing with 5.2 in the season opener against Middle Tennessee State. Michigan’s yards per carry in the four games since: 2.4, 2.1, 3.4, 3.6.
“I feel like in the run game, explosive plays just come down to hand placement,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan. “Whether it’s by a guard keeping his block or myself or (right tackle Jalen Mayfield) keeping our head inside the defender or where best we can find a seam.”
Against Illinois, the Wolverines won’t need an efficient ground game to stroll to an easy win. But this is their last chance before back-to-back games against Penn State and No. 9 Notre Dame to show they can be productive on the ground and make life a little easier for Patterson.
How Michigan’s run defense holds up against Reggie Corbin
On the other side, Illinois has had no such struggles with its yards per carry. One of their few bright spots over the past two seasons has been fifth-year senior running back Reggie Corbin.
In his first year as the Illini’s starting running back a year ago, Corbin burst onto the scene with an incredible 8.5 yards per carry in a nine-touchdown season. He hasn’t quite reached those levels this season, but still has 6.6 yards per carry and two 130-yard games.
Last weekend, when Michigan held Iowa to one yard on 30 carries (66 yards excluding sacks), it was hailed as a bounce-back performance for a unit that was heavily criticized after giving up 359 rushing yards to Wisconsin in a 35-14 loss. The difference, though, is Iowa — despite running a similar offense to the Badgers’ — doesn’t have a running back like Jonathan Taylor.
That’s not to say Corbin is Taylor — no one in the Big Ten is. But with redshirt junior defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour in his second game back from injury, this is a prime opportunity for Michigan’s run defense to show that its improvement is real.
Can Dax Hill continue strong performances?
Through three games, Daxton Hill — Michigan’s prized five-star freshman safety — was conspicuously absent from the Wolverines’ secondary.
Two weeks ago, against Rutgers, an injury to junior J’Marick Woods gave Hill his first shot at significant playing time. He remained behind senior Josh Metellus and junior Brad Hawkins at safety, but the injury allowed Hill to slot in when either needed a play off.
Now, Hill has moved to the top of the depth chart at nickel, according to Jim Harbaugh.
Against Iowa, he played the role well beyond a typical freshman’s capabilities, notably breaking up a fourth-down pass attempt on a crossing route as the Hawkeyes drove into Michigan territory late in the second half with a chance to tie.
“He had six tackles, he showed up on the statline and taking steps, taking strides like everyone expected him to,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s been a very good progression, seeing improvement from him each week.”
With Woods now in his second week back from injury, continued strong performances from Hill would likely indicate he’s moved into third on the safety depth chart in addition to his top spot at nickel.
Despite Michigan’s recent offensive struggles, it’s hard to see the Wolverines losing to a team that’s lost three straight games to unranked opposition. Michigan will be good enough on both sides of the ball to avoid raising any eyebrows while also failing to placate any of the chief concerns looming over this team.