The Wolverines showed up to play Saturday — but they didn’t stay.
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 in their second Big Ten game. But after an impressive first quarter, Michigan faded fast and lost 45-20 to Illinois in front of a crowd of 109,750 Saturday.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet looked confident early at the helm of the Wolverines’ offense, throwing for 95 yards and leading the Wolverines to a 14-3 lead after 15 minutes of play.
After missing a 52-yard field goal attempt on their first drive, the Wolverines scored their first touchdown on a 4-yard run by freshman running back Sam McGuffie. Michigan started the drive at midfield and needed just two first downs in two plays — one a beautiful 26-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Martavious Odoms, the other an 18-yard run by McGuffie — to set up the score.
Illinois retaliated with a 58-yard field goal on the next drive before the Wolverines widened their lead. The highlight of Michigan’s second touchdown drive was a 27-yard pass from Threet to Odoms on third down and 15 to put the Wolverines in field goal range. Threet connected with freshman Kevin Koger in the end zone four plays later, but the touchdown was negated because of an ineligible receiver. On the next play, junior wide receiver Greg Mathews caught a high pass in the corner of the end zone to put the Wolverines ahead by 11.
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. The statistics were a marked improvement from last week’s game against Wisconsin, when Michigan was averaging 18 kick return yards at the half.
But after starting impressively, Threet and the Wolverines faded in the second quarter. Threet was just 3-of-12 for 34 yards. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams wasn’t much better on paper, going just 2-of-7 for 66 yards, but Williams’ ability to nail long passes gave the Fighting Illini the momentum. 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.
The Michigan defense continued to be no match for Illinois’ deep passes as Williams launched a 43-yard screen pass to running back Daniel Dufrene that put the Illini ahead for the first time partway through the second quarter. And in the Fighting Illini’s first drive after halftime, Williams threw a blistering, 77-yard pass to wide receiver Jeff Cumberland to give the Fighting Illini a 24-14 lead on a play where the Michigan defense was a nonfactor.
As the game continued, the Wolverines continued to look lethargic. Midway through the third quarter, Threet was sacked on a 3rd-and-17 to give the Wolverines 4th down and 26 on their own 10-yard line, giving Michigan -10 total yards for the drive.
With 4:26 left in the third quarter, Tim Jamison blocked a 31-yard Illinois field goal attempt at the line to prevent the Fighting Illini from gaining a 13-point lead. But with the chance to regain momentum, Threet fumbled the ball to turn it over at midfield.
Before Saturday’s game, the Wolverines had outscored their opponents 39-13 in the fourth quarter. And after Illinois scored again to extend its lead to 31-14, the Wolverines tried to stage another comeback with 11:54 left in the game. Threet kept the ball on second-and-goal and ran it to the half yard line, and on fourth down, Threet threw the ball to fullback Mark Moundros for the touchdown. K.C. Lopata kicked the extra point into the goal post, his second missed conversion of the season, to keep the Wolverines down by 11 points.
But the Illinois offense again burned the Wolverines on a long play after Williams ran the ball 50 yards to the one-yard line on a third-and-2. And three plays later, the Fighting Illini broke the game back open with a one-yard touchdown run by running back Mikel Leshoure.
And with 7:18 left in the game, the return game again failed the Wolverines. After his solid first half, Odoms fumbled the kickoff to give the Fighting Illini the ball at the Michigan seven yard line, and the ensuing touchdown made the game a 25-point blowout.
For more coverage of tonight’s loss, read SportsMonday on Monday, October 6.