One goal-line series was all it took for the Michigan football team’s season to continue spinning out of control.
After starting 4-0, the Wolverines have yet to win another FBS game and sunk even further Saturday, losing 38-13 in its first loss at Memorial Stadium in 16 years. Even more surprising is that the clobbering came at the hands of the Big Ten’s worst team, Illinois.
“It’s disappointing,” senior linebacker Stevie Brown said. “That’s all I can say. It’s disappointing.”
On Michigan’s first drive of the second half, a failure to convert from the one-yard line turned out to be a tremendous momentum changer. Illinois stopped the Wolverines four straight times on the drive and went on to score 21 unanswered points in the third quarter.
“I mean, I never thought it was going to get out of reach like it did,” Brown said. “It was just unfortunate what happened. I don’t even know what to say about it.”
The critical series was set up by a 76-yard Forcier pass — the Wolverines’ longest of the season — to redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree on third-and-long. But senior running back Carlos Brown couldn’t score on the first three downs, and senior Brandon Minor couldn’t punch it in on fourth down, either.
It wasn’t long before Illinois completely shifted the momentum in its favor. The Michigan defense that dominated the second quarter did not return to the field after halftime.
It took the Illini just six plays to drive 99 yards to the end zone, capped off by a 70-yard dash by running back Mikel Leshoure, who was barely grazed on the run. The score gave Illinois just a one-point lead, but it was an edge it wouldn’t relinquish.
“That’s a big momentum change, particularly on the road,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “When we have a chance to seize momentum on the road, and we let it up, it’s tough.”
Senior quarterback Juice Williams led the way for Illinois with 220 total yards and two touchdowns. Both LeShoure and Illini running back Jason Ford outgained the Wolverines, who had just 113 yards on the ground.
Michigan looked solid in the first half, going into the break up six points because of solid second-quarter defensive play. But the one-win Illini team came out firing after halftime and posted an insurmountable three-touchdown lead on 209 yards of offense.
Right from the get-go, Williams seemed to pick up where he left off from last year’s Michigan game despite his disappointing year thus far. Last season,Williams racked up 431 yards and four touchdowns against the Wolverines, and his first drive Saturday looked just as perfect.
Williams engineered a six-minute, 82-yard series, a drive that was jumpstarted by his 26-yard keeper on the game’s second play. The senior went on to rush for 40 yards and completed all three of his passes for 29 yards on the possession.
But freshman quarterback Tate Forcier wasn’t about to be overshadowed, at least not on the first drive.
Forcier was also perfect through the air on his four passes for 36 yards, which helped put together the 13-play march downfield. Forcier finished with 257 yards on 13-of-23 passing. Senior Carlos Brown carried the load on the ground with 26 yards and scored the game-tying touchdown. He posted 94 yards in the loss.
After the two long opening drives, the defenses showed up for the rest of the half.
But at first it didn’t matter, as an Illinois three-and-out went for naught when redshirt sophomore Junior Hemingway fumbled the punt return as he ran to get under the ball on the Michigan 40-yard line.
Illinois was unable to capitalize on the turnover, though. After gaining 20 yards on four plays, the Illini missed the 38-yard field goal.
The Michigan defense closed out the half from there.
Senior defensive end Brandon Graham led the effort, moving into second place for all-time sacks at Michigan with a dominating third-down takedown. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen also added a sack of his own. And former walk-on linebacker Kevin Leach filled in well for redshirt junior Obi Ezeh, who has started 30 games at the position, by tackling Williams in the open field for a loss. It was Michigan’s first sack by a non-defensive line player this season.
The result? The Wolverines held Illinois to minus-15 yards in the second quarter.
And Michigan capitalized by tacking on a 29-yard and a 42-yard field goal in the final eight minutes of the half to enter halftime up six.
But the second half was marred by defensive letdowns.
After their first 99-yard scoring drive, the Illini tacked up another seven points after four plays with two plays for over 26 yards, a Michigan pass interference call in the end zone and a wide-open two-yard touchdown catch by tight end London Davis.
On Illinois’s next drive, Illini receiver Eddie McGee made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on a well-thrown ball by Williams. Two plays later, Williams walked into the end zone on a roll out from the three-yard line.
The possession capped a 21-point Illinois quarter in which LeShoure racked up 112 rush yards and Williams added 90 through the air.
“We’re not getting wins that we should,” junior safety Troy Woofolk said. “We’re just playing for pride now. We know we’re not able to win the Big Ten, but we still have a chance to go to a bowl.”