CHAMPAIGN — Before Saturday, Michigan had given up more than three points in the third quarter just once.
Against Illinois, that’s when everything unraveled.
In those 15 minutes, the Wolverines surrendered 21 points and 209 yards to a team that had not beaten an FBS team in 364 days.
“We are frustrated because we gave it away, we just gave it away,” senior defensive end Brandon Graham said after the game. “We was the better team today. Not taking that away from Illinois — they came — but we know we gave it away.”
The Fighting Illini’s 38-13 victory marked just the second time in 52 seasons they have beaten Michigan at Memorial Stadium.
For linebacker Stevie Brown, the second-half defensive collapse felt like it took nearly that long.
“I never thought it was going to get out of reach like it did, it was just unfortunate what happened,” said Brown, struggling to find words. “It’s disappointing. That’s all I can say. It’s disappointing.”
That disappointment stems from the second quarter, when Michigan held the Illini to minus-15 total yards and the Wolverine offense built a six-point lead. At halftime, Wolverine coach Rich Rodriguez told Michigan to “just step on their throat and extend our lead,” according to junior cornerback Troy Woolfolk.
And the Wolverines had every expection that they would come out and do just that — a feeling confirmed by quarterback Tate Forcier’s apparent 77-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Roy Roundtree on the first drive after the half.
An official review reversed the on-field touchdown call, though, leaving Michigan with four scoring chances from the one-yard line. Roundtree’s non-score was inconsequential until, on the next three plays, senior running back Carlos Brown could not extend the football 36 inches across the goal line. Even senior running back Brandon Minor, a player that Rodriguez says transforms the offense’s physical play, couldn’t punch it in on fourth down.
But that wasn’t the backbreaker for Michigan.
The start of Illinois’ next drive looked similar to one of the Wolverines’ second-quarter possessions during last weekend’s blowout loss to Penn State. Against the Nittany Lions, Michigan was backed up to its own two-yard line on third-and-long when the snap went through the back of the end zone. The safety proved to be a critical point of the game.
Against Illinois Saturday, with the Illini starting at their own one-yard line, the Wolverines were in a position to reverse fates on the goal line. Michigan had ended the previous three Illini drives with third-down sacks and was playing well.
This time, though, was much different.
Illinois went 99 yards and scored in less than three minutes on a drive capped by a 70-yard touchdown rush by running back Mikel Leshoure. He was barely grazed on the play.
And as the Wolverines’ halftime lead dissolved, so did their focus.
“We have to have enough resolve to bounce back and not let it affect you,” Rodriguez said. “I know the guys on the sideline were trying to keep guys into it. … I can’t explain everything that goes on in minds of young people all the time.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Mike Martin said Michigan let up and was too relaxed after halftime.
“It hurts, obviously, but we just went back to the sideline, Coach was telling us to dust it off,” Martin said. “We were just trying to have a better series the next series.”
But the Wolverines looked increasingly worse on the next two Illini drives, giving up a touchdown both times.
The third quarter was so different from the second that, even after the game was long over, redshirt junior linebacker Jonas Mouton could only explain it with two words.
“Definitely shocked,” he said.
The loss extends Michigan’s conference skid to four games, leaving the Wolverines still on the brink of bowl eligibility with much tougher competition coming up on the schedule.
“I don’t want to say it’s slipping away, but we’re not getting wins that we should,” Woolfolk said. “We’re just playing for pride now.
“We know we’re not able to win the Big Ten. But we still got a chance to go to a bowl — just one more win — and if we do that, then it’ll be a better season than last year.”