Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd has aspirations of becoming the next big-time anchor on SportsCenter. The junior, who interned at Fox Sports Midwest this past summer, wants to get a chance to use his own repertoire of catchy phrases on the ESPN television show when he graduates.
But for now, Lloyd will just stick to watching his big-play catches getting plastered on highlight shows.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Biletnikoff Award candidate had 60 catches for 1,006 yards last season. Along with senior Walter Young, Lloyd and the Illinois receiving corps will pose a tremendous test to Michigan’s secondary Saturday in Champaign.
“With the skill they have offensively, Illinois will challenge us in a way that we haven’t been challenged yet,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
Averaging nearly 600 yards in total offense over the past two games, Illinois (1-3) knows how to spread a defense out. And despite losing star quarterback Kurt Kittner to graduation, John Beutjer, a junior transfer from Iowa, has emerged from the Illinois quarterback carousel and seems to be finding his touch. Beutjer has racked up 703 yards and eight touchdowns in his two starts this year – against San Jose State and Arkansas State – and he is ranked second in the conference in passing efficiency.
What makes this challenge from the Illini different, Michigan safety Julius Curry said, is that they have so many weapons that you can’t just lock Marlin Jackson on the top receiver.
“They have four of the best receivers in the Big Ten this year,” said Curry, who is coming off a two-interception performance against Utah last Saturday. “Everyone is averaging over 11 yards per catch and that is real hard to beat.”
Illinois’ ability to extend the field vertically may not bode too well for a Michigan defense that has been giving up too many big plays. The Wolverines gave up five plays of more than 20 yards against Notre Dame and three more against Utah last Saturday.
“We’ve seemed vulnerable to the big play,” Carr said.
Although Michigan’s defense seemed to be its strength against the Utes, Illinois vast array of experienced weapons could help some young Wolverines such as Markus Curry and Zia Combs see what they’re made of.
“It puts (Curry and Combs) in a position where they have to make big plays and stand out,” Julius Curry said. “Either they are as good as everyone says or they are not.”
Julius was surprised his brother Markus spent last Saturday on the sidelines, apparently benched for his lackadaisical effort on a few long pass plays by Notre Dame the week before.
“He took it pretty hard,” Julius said of his brother. “He learned from his mistake. He has a lot to prove to the team and everyone back home.”
And if the Michigan secondary does slip up, Lloyd and Young plan to be ready to pounce. Both had an interesting offseason, as Lloyd – a former high school state champion in high jump and hurdles – spent most of his extra time on the track working out. And Young, who caught 50 passes for 890 yards last year, joined the Illinois basketball team. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior saw action in two games, but left the team after the Assembly Hall floor began to take a toll on his knees.
But Young’s knees haven’t hampered him as of late, as he caught eight passes for 153 yards and a touchdown against San Jose State last week. And despite Illinois losing two of its three games by three points, the defending Big Ten champions hope their first home win against Michigan since 1983 will help turn the barrage of boos at Memorial Stadium toward an opponent for a change.
“Their fans absolutely hate us,” said Michigan offensive lineman Tony Pape. “Their fans are right on top of you. They are screaming obscenities down at you. It’s funny to hear, but it kind of gets in your head a little bit.”