Entering the season, this game looked like a laugher. Illinois won just two games each of the last two seasons, and it hasn’t won more than five games since 2001. But the Illini’s growth under Ron Zook has escalated this season, and they’re a viable Big Ten threat. Can Illinois end Michigan’s five-game winning streak under the lights Saturday night? Here’s our breakdown.
Michigan rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense
With Mike Hart’s status still uncertain – his teammates claim he’ll play, but both Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and Hart’s mother seem less certain about the Heisman candidate playing this week – Michigan’s usually stable ground game becomes a big question mark.
With Hart in, even at less than 100 percent, the Wolverines should control the pace of the game on the ground. Hart is the nation’s second-leading rusher and has topped 100 yards in each of the team’s seven games this season.
If Hart can’t go, though, things could go south. Quickly. Backup Brandon Minor also suffered an ankle injury last week, and, even though Carlos Brown was a formidable replacement in mop-up time against Purdue, he’s never carried more than 13 times in a game.
Hart’s in-the-air status, along with Illinois’ run-stopping machine J Leman, is enough to make this a toss up.
Michigan pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense
A hobbled Hart means more focus on the passing game. If last weekend’s game against Purdue is any indication, it should be a smooth adjustment. Chad Henne is finally playing like a fourth-year starter. He completed 75 percent of his passes for 264 yards and two scores last weekend. More than half of those yards were on connections to junior Mario Manningham, who returned from a one-game suspension with one of the best games of his career. Couple him with an always-steady Adrian Arrington, and Michigan’s passing game is beginning to put up the numbers most people expected entering the season.
The Fighting Illini’s secondary allows 100 more yards than their offense gets through the air each game. Expect a similar trend Saturday night.
Illinois rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Illinois coach Ron Zook seems to be leaning toward starting Juice Williams at quarterback – the more mobile of his two signal-callers. That should come as no surprise to Michigan fans, who saw their Wolverines torn apart by running quarterbacks the first two weeks of the season. Combine Williams with junior running back Rashard Mendenhall, and you have one of the Big Ten’s most potent rushing attacks.
Michigan’s defense has been great against the run throughout its five-game winning streak, though. Defensive tackles Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson have taken on multiple blockers, freeing up tackling space for the defensive ends and linebackers. In the team’s past five games, Michigan has allowed fewer than 80 yards per contest on the ground.
Still, until Michigan proves it can handle dual-threat quarterbacks, Illinois gets the nod in this category.
Illinois Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense
Thanks to a tremendous performance from the defensive front, Michigan shut down a potent Purdue passing game last week. The Wolverines struck fear into Boilermaker quarterback Curtis Painter with their pressure, preventing him and his wide receiver corps from finding a groove.
The Fighting Illini, however, are much more apt to keep the ball on the ground. Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee have combined to throw for just 151.1 yards per game.
But the Michigan defense has struggled with running quarterbacks in the past, and you never know what sort opportunities that could open in the air.
Now headed by K.C. Lopata, the Michigan field-goal kicking unit has looked much improved in recent weeks. Then again, given how the season started, it would be tough not to.
Other than a blocked extra point, Lopata has been perfect since relieving Jason Gingell, hitting all four of his field-goal attempts. But he’s yet to be tested outside of medium range this year.
There’s nothing new to report on kickoff coverage or returning fronts. Michigan continues to falter.
On the other hand, Illinois boasts kicked Jason Reda, who has knocked in all nine of his field-goal attempts, including a 50-yarder.
Both teams are coming into this one with a lot on the line. On a five-game winning streak, the Wolverines are on a mission to prove those early two losses were just an aberration and that they only began to reflect their true talent in last week’s mauling of Purdue. Already winning three more games than last year, the Illini are on a mission to prove they’re for real and that last week’s 10-6 loss to Iowa is justa fluke.
But don’t forget one minor detail: Illinois will play at home and at night in front of a sold-out crowd. Then again, Michigan’s won 39 of the last 44 against the Illini.
Prediction: Michigan 28, Illinois 24