Illinois defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus is many different things to the Michigan football team.
To redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, and probably most of his teammates, he’s “85.” To Michigan coach Brady Hoke he’s “Marcellus Wiley, err, Whitney.” To redshirt junior offensive lineman Patrick Omameh he’s Whitney Mercilus, “the leading sack producer in the country.”
Mercilus’s 11.5 sacks do in fact lead the country.
A year after Michigan and Illinois combined for a basketball-like 67-65 score in triple overtime, defense highlights the matchup this Saturday as both teams have defensive units ranked in the top 25 nationally. And to borrow a basketball term, Mercilus is the best PTPer (read: Prime Time Player) on the field.
“He’s got great body control,” Lewan said. “That’s something you don’t usually see out of everybody. Some of the players you go against are power guys but they can’t really speed rush off the edge. He’s doing a great job of coming off the edge, also using the power using his strength all the time.”
So No. 24 Michigan has to double team Mercilus the whole game, right?
“I never would want to say that,” Lewan said. “I feel like if you’re going to play football, especially in this league at this school, when you get on the field you have to be the most confident person on the field and believe that everything you do is going to be better than the person in front of you.”
A lot of Michigan’s offensive success will rely on Lewan and the offensive line’s matchup with Illinois’ defensive front. The Wolverines’ 15th-ranked rush offense averages 232 yards a game. And with the emergence of redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint as the lead running back, Michigan’s rushing attack has found some more stability in recent weeks.
Toussaint, though, will be running right into the Fighting Illini’s strength. Mercilus has combined with fellow defensive end Michael Buchanan — a player Lewan said didn’t get enough credit because he was behind Mercilus — to help the Illinois (2-3 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) become the best rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 103 yards a game. The two defensive ends have done most of the damage, combining for 27 tackles for a loss. No Michigan player has more than eight tackles for loss this season.
If the Wolverines (3-2, 7-2) can get by the line, it only means running into the speedy Illinois linebackers. Hoke said the biggest thing about the Fighting Illini defense was their athleticism, making it tough to counter their scheme.
“You’ve got to play (with) great fundamentals,” Hoke said. “You can’t chase ghosts.”
Michigan’s defense faces the same problem as its offense: countering athleticism. Illini dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase torched the Wolverines for four total touchdown passes and over 300 total yards a year ago.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was named to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list. With Jenkins standing at 6-feet and 190 pounds, he poses similar problems as Iowa’s Marvin McNutt, who had 101 receiving yards a week ago against the Wolverines.
“We could double him and then you’re going to put single (coverage) on two other guys,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “When teams do that and have the ability to do that, usually you have a lot of other guys that can do it. I don’t know that we’re ready to do that right now.”
It seems an imperfect fit for the improved Michigan defense. Though the unit doesn’t have its own Mercilus, the two counterparts have similar elements: a strong defensive line and a lot of movement.
Adding in the mobile quarterbacks, similar to last year, the two teams appear to be mirror images of each other, even if it is one of the funhouse ones. Except this time, it likely won’t be first to 67.