CHAMPAIGN — He ran around the outside, straight at the quarterback, as if he had done it every game this season.

But it was linebacker Kevin Leach’s first sack, and the first one Michigan had seen from a non-defensive lineman all year. With the Illinois line staying with its blocks and the Michigan secondary holding its coverage, Leach met Williams with a vengeance to force a nine-yard loss.

It was hard to find a feel-good story in the Wolverines’ embarrassing loss, but Leach’s 11 tackles Saturday were solid after the coaches decided to start the former walk-on over defensive veteran Obi Ezeh.

“We’re trying to, well, we thought they were going to do more spread, and they did,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Kevin’s pretty athletic.”

But in his next breath, Rodriguez talked about the ineptness of his defense instead of attempting to further explain the personnel decision.

“Obviously, we didn’t play well defensively,” he continued. “Missed tackles are upsetting. Probably more upsetting to me is when the ball is laying on the ground, and it seems like it’s there for an eternity and we weren’t able to get on it.”

Leach earned a scholarship about two weeks before the beginning of the season. Against Eastern Michigan, he started at weak-side linebacker after the Big Ten suspended starter Jonas Mouton for punching a Notre Dame player the week before. But Leach wasn’t even listed on this week’s three-deep chart at middle linebacker.

Ezeh refused to talk to the media after Saturday’s game, which was the first in 29 games he didn’t get the starting nod. He ended the game with just one assisted tackle while playing in fourth-quarter garbage time, but he still leads the team in tackles this season with 63.

Rodriguez and his team have started two walk-ons this year on defense. The other, safety Jordan Kovacs, has now started four straight games on the strong side. The practice of starting walk-ons over recruited, scholarship players seems to be turning into a trend — which, even if Leach and Kovacs turn in strong performances, shows in disturbing fashion the vulnerability of the Wolverines’ paper-thin defense.

“I think you have to constantly coach their mentality, with so many guys playing for the first time in different roles than they’ve ever been in,” Rodriguez said. “But at the end of the day, it’s — you’ve gotta go out there and execute, and as coaches, we have to put them in a position where they can make plays and make it happen, and we’re just not doing that the last couple of weeks.”

One of the only players who has consistently been able to make those plays is senior defensive end Brandon Graham. But on his most impressive play of the game — his second blocked punt in two games — the rest of his defense had already sealed the collapse for the Wolverines.

With 3:49 left in the game and the Wolverines down 31-13, Graham lunged through the middle to knock the ball down just after Illinois punter Anthony Santelli’s foot made contact. The ball bounced backward 26 yards before rolling out of bounds at the 15-yard line.

“It just happened, just keep coming and it opened up for me,” Graham said of the play. “That’s all I think about, just keep coming and somebody’s gotta get up on the play.”

That gave Michigan a chance to narrow Illinois’s lead for pride’s sake, if nothing else. But judging from Michigan’s red-zone conversions up to that point — one touchdown in six trips inside the 20-yard line — getting in the end zone was statistically looking like a longshot.

And it was. Graham’s blocked punt was his second in two games, with his block against Penn State coming in the third quarter with the Wolverines down by 22. And just like in last week’s game, the Wolverines squandered the good field position by immediately turning the ball over.

This time, it was courtesy of quarterback Tate Forcier, who ran on first down and fumbled to end the drive. Forcier finished the game with three fumbles (two lost), and Illinois rubbed the win in the Wolverines’ faces a few plays later with a 79-yard touchdown run.

Graham finished the game with seven tackles and one sack, bringing his career sacks total to 25 and passing former Wolverine James Hall (1996-99) for second place on Michigan’s all-time sacks list. But as his individual accomplishments continue to be overshadowed by the team’s failures, he hasn’t found much consolation in his play.

“It just hurt,” Graham said, echoing his mantra during this season’s other three losses. “We’re just trying to get to a bowl and we’re trying to finish strong, and I’m gonna make sure we go in there and we don’t lose focus.

“Stuff happens, we lose, we gotta just take it and run with it, and you know, just make sure it don’t happen again. It just hurt to keep saying it but it’s gonna happen.”

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