At this point in Brady Hoke’s first season at the helm of Michigan’s football program, the Wolverines held a 6-0 record and appeared entirely rejuvenated under new leadership.
Tim Beckman’s first year at Illinois? Not so much.
So far, the first-year coach’s Fighting Illini hold an underwhelming 2-4 record and have lost their first two games in Big Ten play. Two weeks ago, they were embarrassed by Penn State, a program that had an even more tumultuous offseason with a coaching transition, and last week Illinois surrendered 21 fourth-quarter points in a loss to struggling Wisconsin.
Beckman didn’t make his job any easier by attracting off-the-field attention this week for placing smokeless tobacco behind his lip during the Wisconsin game, which is prohibited by the NCAA.
On the offensive end, Illinois’s only true weapon is junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has the ability to throw accurately and break the pocket with impressive speed.
Against the Badgers, Scheelhaase picked up 107 yards on the ground. With his unheralded receiving corps, he may be forced to do the same against a Michigan defense that has been shutting down the pass all season.
“We do a little (drill) at the end after practice, some ‘chase the rabbit,’ we call it,” Hoke said. “I think with us going so much against each other, you know obviously (No.) 16 is hard to corral once in a while. So I think that helps us as a team when you’re playing against a guy like Scheelhaase.”
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson would undoubtedly be able to blow past Scheelhaase in the 40- or 100-yard dash, so indeed, the Wolverine defense is well-practiced in defending the dual-threat signal callers. Still, Hoke doesn’t underestimate what Scheelhaase brings to the table.
Senior defensive end Michael Buchanan is the clear-cut leader on the Illinois defensive front, and he has an impressive ability to use his speed and athleticism to get to the quarterback, finishing fourth in the Big Ten last season with 7.5 sacks. At just 250 pounds, he won’t get the strongest push on Michigan’s tackles, but he may be able to blow by them if he catches them sleeping.
“Buchanan, you know, he’s a good football player,” Hoke said. “He’s a guy that’s active. (Jonathan) Brown, the linebacker, is active. Their whole front is pretty good. They lost a couple guys from a year ago, one for sure. But I think they’re an athletic front, and they can be physical.”
One of the players Hoke was referring to was safety Tavon Wilson, who was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Against the Wolverines last season, Wilson picked off Robinson once and recovered a fumble, so Hoke is likely happy he won’t have to see him again.
To neutralize Wilson last season, the Wolverines kept the ball on the ground for most of the contest, and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had a field day against the Fighting Illini. He picked up 144 yards on just 18 carries.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Illinois defense key in on Toussaint like Purdue did last week, in order to contain him better than during their last meeting. But that could ultimately free up space for Robinson to run in the open field, as was the case in West Lafayette.
The biggest strength of Illinois’s defense is its impressive play on third-down situations. The Fighting Illini are first in the Big Ten, allowing offenses just a 27-percent success rate on third down.
“They’re great on third down,” Robinson said. “They’re probably one of the best in the country on third down, and in the red zone. We’ve got to be prepared.”