CHAMPAIGN – Offense. Defense. Special teams. It all worked. It all worked about as well as it needed to, anyway, and Michigan cruised to a laughable 45-28 win over Illinois.

Paul Wong
Michigan kicker Phillip Brabbs celebrates with his teammates after recovering a fumble off his own kickoff in the third quarter of Saturday

Following a foreboding first two drives (in which the Wolverines went three-and-out both times), the Michigan offense moved the ball with a fluidity and efficiency reminiscent of the Henson-Thomas-Terrell offense of 2000. It was offense with an ease that has eluded the Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-1 overall) thus far this season, but exemplifies the kind of game the Michigan coaches want to become the standard.

Of course, quarterback John Navarre and the well-oiled machine that was the Michigan offense got by Illinois (0-1, 1-4) with a little help from their friends.

The defense played its most productive game of the season, causing five turnovers and setting up its offensive teammates for easy scores. Two interceptions by sophomore cornerback Marlin Jackson, an interception by senior safety Charles Drake and fumble recoveries by senior safety Julius Curry and placekicker Phil Brabbs gave the offense enough to work with. Navarre and Co. scored 24 points off the five turnovers, and benefited mightily in the field position battle.

“We’ve talked about (capitalizing on opportunities) all through training camp and all through the season -being an opportunistic team,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “But we haven’t been able to do that. We did it today, and it was the big difference in the game.”

The forced turnovers were complemented by another week of successful Michigan blitz packages. Particularly impressive was the Julius Curry sack of Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer during which the Michigan safety bulldozed Illinois running back Morris Virgil en route.

But the turnovers, opportune and fruitful as they were, overshadowed an aspect of the defensive game that still needs serious work. The Wolverines gave up 368 yards in the air (including 10 receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown by Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd) and 543 yards of total offense. It was a performance that would be a major cause for concern, had the turnovers not come when they did. And the offense turned those turnovers into points.

“I thought John Navarre had his best game since he’s been at Michigan,” Carr said. “There’s always people out there who are perfect and expect perfection, but John Navarre has done a damn good job.”

Navarre connected on 22-of-37 attempts for 264 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. The offensive line held, and despite early problems holding onto the football, Navarre’s receivers got open and made plays after the catch. Braylon Edwards caught four passes for 101 yards, and made two impressive runs through the Illinois defense after the catch. Senior captain and tight end Bennie Joppru again emerged as the forgotten threat of the Michigan offense. When the Illini stacked the box and challenged Navarre to pass, he was able to find a wide open Joppru multiple times.

“When they put eight or nine guys in there, you have to throw the ball,” junior lineman Tony Pape said.

Carr was impressed by Navarre’s ability to air the ball out when the Illini forced the situation, and was grateful that offensive coordinator Terry Malone was willing to give Navarre the go-ahead on those plays.

“Early in the game they were really stacked in there, but you know me: I’d run it in there anyway, just to soften them up a bit,” Carr said.

After Illinois scored in the first quarter to cut the Michigan lead to one, the Wolverines went on a tear, scoring the next 31 points before putting in their second unit and relinquishing two meaningless Illinois touchdowns. Included in that 31-0 rout was a third-quarter drive that was Michigan’s most successful of the year (12 plays for 88 yards in 6:07 minutes).

It was a game in which maybe all the cylinders weren’t firing all the time, but were definitely firing at the right time. The special teams’ day was highlighted by field goal perfection (Troy Nienberg replaced Brabbs on field goals and was one-for-one), a perfect pooch punt by Brabbs (downed at the Illinois 1-yard line), a blocked Illinois field goal and the Brabbs fumble recovery (which he ran back a yard short of pay dirt).

Offense. Defense. Special teams. It all worked when it was needed.

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