The Wolverines showed up to play Saturday — but they didn’t stay.
And after being trounced by the Illinois offense in a 45-20 loss, nobody could explain why.
“I told the team, ‘We’re probably going to be sick when we watch the film,’ ” said Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who was visibly upset in his postgame press conference. “Just seeing the breakdowns, mistakes we made on offense and defense.”
After falling behind quickly in their last two games, 21-0 against Notre Dame and 19-0 against Wisconsin, the Wolverines stressed the importance of coming out strong Saturday. But Michigan imploded after a strong first quarter, giving up a Michigan Stadium record 431 all-purpose yards to Illinois quarterback Juice Williams and 501 total yards in the blowout.
The first quarter looked like it would be a continuation of the Wolverines’ prolific, 27-point second half against Wisconsin. Redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet looked confident early, throwing for 95 yards and leading the Wolverines to a 14-3 lead after 15 minutes of play.
Michigan’s biggest asset in the first half was its return game, an area that Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez called “atrocious” after last Saturday’s win against Wisconsin. The Wolverines averaged almost 31 yards on kickoff returns in the first half, a marked improvement from last week’s average of 18 kick return yards at the half. And with consistent completions leading to two touchdowns, Michigan looked like it was getting into a rhythm.
But the Wolverines regressed in the final three quarters. Freshman wide receiver Martavious Odoms fumbled a kickoff in the fourth quarter while the Wolverines were down 38-20 to give the Fighting Illini the ball at the Michigan 16-yard line.
Between that and a Threet fumble on a read play with running back Michael Shaw late in the third quarter, the Wolverines looked sloppy and disjointed by the end of the game.
When asked about his team’s turnovers, Rodriguez became animated, speaking faster with every sentence as his voice rose.
“You think I like standing there watching that?” he said. “You think I want to stand and watch us drop the ball? I mean, you think it hasn’t been addressed? I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve never seen nothing like it. And I don’t know if you can work on it more than we’re working on it.”
But it was the Michigan defense’s inability to cover the Williams-led spread offense that slaughtered the Wolverines’ chances for a win. Sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren attributed the mess to a “lack of discipline” by the defense, saying the Wolverines were surprised after being able to “get away with certain things” against Wisconsin’s traditional offense last week.
“We just had a couple of blown assignments,” safety Brandon Harrison said. “Guys weren’t fitting around right.”
But blown assignments started to become a trend. A 46-yard bomb to Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn with less than a minute left in the first quarter set up Illinois’ first touchdown of the game five seconds into the second quarter. Minutes later, Williams launched a 57-yard touchdown screen pass to running back Daniel Dufrene that put the Illini ahead for the first time. And in his first drive after halftime, Williams threw a lofting 77-yard pass to wide receiver Jeff Cumberland to give the Fighting Illini a 24-14 lead.
“How open some of those guys were was ridiculous,” Rodriguez said. “It should never happen that way.”
As the game unfolded, the Wolverines continued to look lethargic. Midway through the third quarter, Threet was sacked on a third-and-17 to give the Wolverines fourth down and 26 on their own 10-yard line. Michigan tallied minus-10 total yards for the drive.
Before Saturday’s game, the Wolverines had outscored their opponents 39-13 in the fourth quarter. But Michigan ended up with minus-15 total rushing yards in the second half and was outscored 21-6 in the last frame.
After giving the crowd of 109,750 a show for the first 15 minutes, the Wolverines left the field the same as they have two other times this season. Some ducked out the other door of the Junge Family Champions Center, away from fans, parents and media. Others just shook their heads in disgust and quickly walked into the parking lot. The players and coaches who stopped to talk recited the same refrain: the Wolverines will keep working hard.
But five games into the season, it’s still unclear when working hard will turn into consistent success.
“You know you’re going to get better, you know you’re going to improve because there’s signs of it,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “But growing pains hurt. They hurt.”