By Kevin Raftery, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 12, 2011
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois entered Saturday’s game against Michigan ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in rush defense, giving up an average of just 103 yards per game.
The Fighting Illini (2-4 Big Ten, 6-4 overall) featured the nation’s sack and forced fumbles leader in defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who had terrorized opposing offenses with a combination of speed and strength up front.
But on Saturday, the 22nd-ranked Wolverines (4-2, 8-2) tamed Mercilus and the Illinois defense, as redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for a career-high 192 yards en route to a 31-14 Michigan victory.
“Up front is where we executed well,” Toussaint said. “The offensive line, I give them credit for creating creases, allowing me to go through them and explode.”
Less than two minutes into the game, Michigan nearly met Illinois’ average, as the Wolverines scored on the opening drive, going 80 yards on four rushes, including a 65-yarder by Toussaint.
On 2nd-and-10 from the 20-yard line, junior quarterback Denard Robinson took the snap in the shotgun and handed the ball left to Toussaint, whose eyes widened.
“It was open,” Toussaint said. “It was a huge hole. I just saw daylight. Coach always says run to daylight, and that’s what I did.”
Toussaint burst through the hole, past Mercilus. From there, it was a foot race to the end zone between Toussaint and the Illinois secondary.
He made it to the Fighting Illini 15-yard line before finally being brought down by cornerback Tavon Wilson.
“I was just running,” Toussaint said, smiling. “I was looking to score.”
Two plays later, Michigan did score on a nine-yard scamper by Robinson to give the Wolverines an early 7-0 lead.
“It was great to see our offense go down the field and score,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “It helps your team, helps your morale.
“I thought we blocked pretty well early. I thought Fitz really helped us. He was running the ball very well.”
But Michigan's rushing onslaught didn’t end. Toussaint, who said the holes were the biggest he’d seen this year, continued to dominate on the ground, racking up an astonishing 121 yards on nine carries in the first quarter — not far off from his previous career high of 170 yards, set two weeks ago against Purdue.
After the Wolverines’ defense forced the Fighting Illini’s third-straight punt, redshirt sophomore receiver Jeremy Gallon gave the Wolverines great field position after he took freshman Justin DuVernois’s punt 32 yards to the Illinois 41-yard line.
Michigan stuck with the ground game on the ensuing possession, going 41 yards on seven running plays — finished by a two-yard rush by Robinson to make it 14-0 Michigan early in the second quarter.
Toussaint continued to excel, gaining 22 more yards on the scoring drive and finishing the first half with 144 yards on 18 rushes.
Meanwhile, the Michigan defense continued to stunt the Illinois offense, giving up just one first down in the first half, allowing the offense to have plenty of time to further its rushing dominance — that is, until the Fighting Illini seemed to figure out what they needed to do to stop Toussaint and the onslaught of run plays.
“The blitz was hurting us in that it seemed like we were getting up field, and we didn’t make the tackle,” said Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “So once you create a vertical seam, you don’t make the tackle, we were running right by them.
“We weren’t making plays, and we went back to just kind of trying to stay in our gaps and playing base and that seemed to help us, but we got our butt beat.”
The change in strategy worked. After Michigan took over at the Illinois 43-yard line with three minutes to go in the half, Toussaint gained just three yards on three rushes during a seven play, 22-yard drive.
The Wolverines were forced to attempt a 38-yard field goal, but redshirt sophomore kicker Brendan Gibbons missed it wide left.
After a sizzling start offensively, Michigan went into the half with a 14-0 lead after gaining just one net rushing yard in the second quarter.
“In the first couple series there, we were not tackling and we were over-running the ball,” said Illinois coach Ron Zook. “Then (the defense) settled down and started playing the way they had been playing.”
The Fighting Illini’s defense continued to improve following the break — after racking up 156 yards on the ground in the first quarter, Michigan gained just 22 additional yards and held just a 17-7 advantage heading into the final 15 minutes of the game.
But in the final quarter, the Michigan running game, combined with a stout defensive performance aided by a key interception by junior cornerback J.T. Floyd, proved to be too much for Illinois.
After the Fighting Illini tightened the score to 24-14 with just over three minutes to play, Toussaint came up big again, scoring on a 27-yard run to give Michigan a 17-point lead and put the game out of reach for the Fighting Illini.
“I think I feed off of others,” Toussaint said. “If my offensive line has juice, then I have juice.”
In a game where Robinson and sophomore Devin Gardner, who took over for the injured Robinson in the third quarter, finished a combined 8-for-15 in the air for just 139 yards, Toussaint proved to be the game-changer in a crucial road win for the Wolverines.
“I know as a team we haven’t felt real good about ourselves because of how we played in East Lansing and Iowa City,” Hoke said. “We played about 30 minutes of Michigan football in Iowa City. We talked about that a lot — playing 60 minutes of Michigan football.
“It was great to win a football game, great to win on the road.”