CHAMPAIGN — With wind gusts of up to 35 mph wreaking havoc
on Michigan’s passing attack, Illinois had plenty of reasons
to dream of an upset at halftime on Saturday. It had intercepted a
pair of passes and scored 17 points on its last three possessions
of the first half to take a 17-10 lead into the locker room.
But in the second half, the Wolverines did what they’ve
always done, whether it was a century ago or a week and a half ago
against Minnesota. With a persistent running attack that wore down
the Fighting Illini and a stifling defense that forced three
interceptions and two punts in the second half, Michigan pulled
away from Illinois to win 30-19.
“I’m very pleased with our team in the second half
after getting down, making so many mistakes and not tackling
particularly well,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
“The good news for us in the second half was we came out and
got an early turnover, then got the lead, which is exactly what you
want to do on the road.”
The Wolverines’ ground game was led by Mike Hart, who
— at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds — is making the premise
that he’s too small for Big Ten football more and more
laughable each week. After setting a Michigan freshman record
against the Golden Gophers with 160 yards, Hart ran 40 times
— fourth-most in Michigan history — and amassed 234
yards, which puts him in a tie for the program’s
seventh-highest rushing total. He had four runs between 25 and 32
yards and ran for a four-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“We started getting to the outside a little bit
more,” said Hart of Michigan’s halftime adjustments.
“They were playing really tight since we had been trying to
run the ball inside a lot, so we opened it up in the second half
and tried to get to the corners.”
Michigan’s defense also stepped up. It won the turnover
battle for the first time in three games.
If the momentum wasn’t in Illinois’ favor at
halftime, it definitely was when Michigan failed to convert on
fourth down to open the third quarter. But three plays later,
linebacker Scott McClintock intercepted a pass from quarterback Jon
Beutjer to give Michigan the ball at the 6-yard line. Two plays
later, the Wolverines scored.
After Michigan scored touchdowns on its next two drives to take
a 30-17 lead, Illinois marched down field to the 30-yard line and
appeared to be in position to score. But on third down, Beutjer
dared to throw at cornerback Marlin Jackson and paid the price, as
the captain’s interception basically put the game away with
just over five minutes left in the game.
Illinois drove down the field one more time with two minutes
left, but McClintock registered his second interception of the
game, this time in the endzone.