Things couldn’t get much worse for Illinois. The Illini sit at the bottom of the Big Ten, haven’t won a game since Sept. 6 and got beat up by Michigan State last weekend. They also lost their starting quarterback Jon Beutjer this week. Beutjer has a nagging back injury that will force him to the sidelines this weekend.
Now Illinois has to come to the Big House and play a Michigan team that’s riding high after its emotional, season-saving win over Minnesota.
Michigan passing offense vs. Illinois passing defense: Michigan’s offense has tended to come out sluggish this season, particularly in games that it’s expected to win. But with an ultra-talented receiving trio (Braylon Edwards, Steve Breaston and Jason Avant) that seems to be clicking with quarterback John Navarre, even a slow start won’t stop the Wolverines. Illinois’ defense is giving up an average of 216 passing yards per game, and safety Marc Jackson has the Illini’s only interception.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Illinois rushing defense: The Heisman talk has faded, but Chris Perry still has impressive numbers – 859 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. His average of 122.7 yards per game leads the Big Ten, and ranks sixth nationally. Illinois’ run defense ranks ninth in the conference. Linebacker Matt Sinclair leads the Illini with 67 tackles and three sacks.
Illinois passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense: This was Illinois’ one bright spot – the Illini’s passing offense is third in the Big Ten and has produced 10 touchdowns. But that was with Beutjer taking the snaps. Senior Dustin Ward has five career starts for the Illini, but he’s still battling redshirt freshman Chris Pazan for the job this week.
Michigan’s secondary has had at least one interception in its last three games, and coach Lloyd Carr is hopeful that cornerback Jeremy LeSueur can return from an injury this week.
Illinois rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense: Illinois has the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten. It has scored just two touchdowns on the ground, and one was a kick return. Freshman running back E.B. Halsey has the team’s lone rushing touchdown, and leads the team with 464 yards. Michigan’s defense has the potential to shut down the Illini – if it shows up.
Last weekend, the Wolverines gave up 424 yards to the Gophers, who scored all five of their touchdowns on the ground.
Special teams: It’s been a roller coaster ride for Michigan in this department. Special teams mistakes cost the Wolverines against Oregon and Iowa. But it rebounded nicely last weekend. Michigan went back to its regular punt formation and didn’t turn the ball over on special teams, and the game-winning points came off a field goal. And look out for Breaston. The shifty punt returner has been a thrill to watch in Michigan’s four home games.
The Illini’s special teams have been more consistent. Their streak of 185 successful extra-point tries dates back to 1998 (Michigan has missed two this season alone). John Gockman has hit 10 field goals in seven games. Defensive end Derrick Strong has blocked a field goal and two extra points this season. Illinois’ punt returning has been futile, but Halsey has racked up yards while returning kickoffs.
Intangibles: Two words: Inexperience and rejuvenation. Illinois has the former; Michigan has the latter. Twenty first-year players have seen action for the Illini this season, and they lost their top four receivers from last season. Michigan got new life from its comeback over the Gophers. The Wolverines know they have to win out to win the Big Ten title, but they’re happy to still be in the hunt.
Michigan 38, Illinois 7