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Michigan v. Illinois Preview

November 11, 2011

Mike and I decided something new this week.  Rather than writing two separate previews, we’ve been emailing back and forth about the game all week, talking about matchups, weaknesses, and what we’d like to see from Michigan on Saturday.  I’ve edited those emails below for your reading pleasure.  We hope you like the new format.  For ease of reading, my thoughts are in standard font, Mike’s are in italics.

Plenty of interesting players on the field…here’s my picks for the players to watch on Saturday.  Interested to get your take…
ILLINOIS
Jason Ford – #21 Running Back: Given the way we’ve struggled against guys like Edwin Baker and Marcus Coker the last few weeks, I think there is a decent chance that Ford is trouble for us.  He’s only broken 100 yards once this season – against Penn State, but he’s been very consistent.  He’s got some speed and some bulk, much like Baker and Coker.  Two weeks ago, running back Troy Pollard was the guy who terrified me since he was averaging 8 yards per carry.  But he’s only gotten 11 carries the last 3 weeks.
Nathan Scheelhaase – #2 Quarterback:  Scheelhaase has improved as a passer since last year and though his running numbers have fallen off, he’s still dangerous there too.  He’s  on pace for over 2000 yards passing and close to 750 rushing – better numbers passing this year, but not in the running department.  He’s only a sophomore, so he still makes mistakes, but he’ll be the first dual threat type guy we’ve seen since Northwestern, and Persa had plenty of success against us.
Jonathan Brown – #45 Linebacker: Brown has been a beast this season with 69 tackles including 11.5 tackles for loss.  He’s had at least 11 tackles in each of the last 4 games, and will be the guy whose job it is to make Denard Robinson’s life hell on Saturday.  He’ll probably lead the team in tackles again, as well as sacks.  Blocking him and limiting his effectiveness will be key to Michigan’s success.
MICHIGAN
For Michigan, I’m not going that in depth.
Key player #1 is always Denard.  If he can throw the ball well and not turn it over, we win.  It’s that simple.  Denard didn’t play the 4th quarter or overtime last year against Illinois, but still put up 362
total yards and 3 touchdowns.  I’m a big believer that certain guys always deliver against the same teams (see Mike Hart vs MSU and Troy Smith vs. Michigan).  I expect big things from Denard on Saturday.
The other guy I think is important for Michigan is Mike Martin.  If he can clog up the middle and force Illinois to become more one dimensional in their running game, I think their offense struggles.
Disagree on anyone?  What’d I miss?
For Illinois, I had two different players I was eyeing –
Whitney Mercilus (#85 DE) – Mercilus is the breakout player for Illinois this season.  He was a minimal contributor in 2010 registering just 16 tackles and 1 sack even though he saw time in all 13 games.  This season he has been a monster off the edge, already tallying 44 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 9 games.  Michigan has struggled with athletic defensive ends this season, and with Taylor Lewan nursing an injury, Mercilus could be in the backfield as frequently as Will Gholston was for MSU.  I also think he’s got a great name for a defensive end, and find his story interesting since he lost the tip of his index finger in a weight room accident right before the Illinois Spring game this season (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-08-31/sports/ct-spt-0901-illinois-football–20110901_1_weight-room-finger-tavon-wilson).
AJ Jenkins (WR #8) – Michigan has struggled against good wide receivers all year, and Jenkins has excelled against the Fighting Illini’s top competition.  He has 68 catches for over 1000 yards and 7 touchdowns this year and has caught at least 6 passes in every game this year but one, in which he caught 5.  He also had a huge game against Northwestern, grabbing 12 balls for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He is a playmaker who can beat defenders in space, and Illinois will get him the ball as much as possible to test the Michigan secondary featuring an injured Jordan Kovacs and an underwhelming Troy Woolfolk at the safety positions.
Then was debating on Ford or Scheelhaase for the 3rd spot and agree with your assessment.
On the Michigan side, I was going to say – 
Al Borges – Not a player, but he is going to be the reason we win or lose this game.  Denard is the most critical player, but it’s up to Borges to put him in a position to succeed.  Making him do play-action passes and putting him in motion with Devin at QB are not going to help us this week.
Roundtree – Champaign in ’09 was his breakout game, even though the most memorable play was getting caught from behind leading to us getting stoned on the goal line and giving away all our momentum, ultimately losing.  He had a huge game last year against Illinois, and just like you said, guys seems to have that team where they just come out and play well.  He’s been in a funk this whole year, so this is a great opportunity for him to step up and make some big plays to get the heat off Denard and the backs.
Denard and Martin are the two critical players on offense and defense, no doubt.
It seems like Illinois has a lot more playmakers than perhaps anyone we’ve seen this year.  It looks like 2 clear studs on the defensive side of the ball, and 3-4 guys on offense to be concerned about.
With Scheelhaase, Ford, and Jenkins all on the offensive side of the ball for the Illini, they appear to be loaded.  The strength is definitely on the ground, as Illinois is putting up almost 200 yards a game with Scheelhaase and Ford leading the way.  They also have Troy Pollard who is still churning out over 8 yards per carry.  But the offense has been slowed the last few weeks.  After averaging almost 35 points per game through the first 6 games, they’ve put up 7, 14, and 7 points respectively in losses to OSU, Purdue, and PSU.  In fact, the only decent opponent they’ve scored a lot of points against is Northwestern, putting up 38 points, but even that isn’t that impressive as every Big 10 opponent has put up at least 34 points against the Wildcats, save for Nebraska last week.  Illinois only put up 23 points against Western Michigan, and they gave up 66(!) to Toledo last night.
The Illini offense has stalled against good opponents, and even against some mediocre ones too.  Is Michigan now a good defense?  Can they hold the Illini to 20 points are less?  And with plenty of talent at the skill positions, why is Illinois struggling so bad?  I know, lots of leading questions…
I think the Illinois offense has some very good individual players, but as a whole I would rate them behind Iowa and Michigan State.  A few quick comparisons of the key positions:
QB: James Vandenberg for Iowa has been terrific this season, throwing 18 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions while completing 63% of his passes.  Kirk Cousins has been effective leading the Spartans, completing 64% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  Scheelhaase has been right there with those two in terms of completion percentage, going for 64%, but has been more pedestrian in the other areas, throwing for the fewest touchdowns (12), and tying Cousins for the most interceptions (5).  He also has the fewest passing yards of the group, sitting at 1687 compared to Cousins at 1989 and Vandenberg just over 2000.  He is a running threat, unlike the other two, but that is less worrisome for me right now than somebody who can pick apart the defense and not make mistakes.
RB: Coker is the go-to back for Iowa carrying the ball 200+ times for over 1000 yards (5.2ypc).  Michigan State does a nice job splitting reps between LeVeon Bell and Edwin Baker, with the
combination of the two coming close to Coker at ~220 carries for 1000+ yards (4.7ypc).  For Illinois, Jason Ford essentially splits reps with the quarterback, but has much lower numbers only averaging 3.9 ypc, totalling less yards rushing than Scheelhaase, and having his longest run be just 18 yards this season.  He’s the type of running back Michigan has struggled with, but I don’t think he’s at the level of Coker, Bell, or Baker at this point in his career.
WR: Jenkins has the best statistics of any wide receiver on the three teams.  His 68 catches, 1030 yards, and 7 touchdowns are better than MSU’s BJ Cunningham who has 51 catches, 827 yards, and 3 touchdowns.  Marvin McNutt for Iowa is close to Jenkins, but has fewer catches (57) and yards (959).  McNutt does have 2 more touchdowns (9), but he has had his success against the bad teams on the schedule and caught zero touchdowns against Michigan, Penn State, Pitt, and Iowa State.  Where I think Illinois falls behind Iowa and Michigan State though is in their depth.  The Spartans have a legitimate number 2 threat in Keyshawn Martin who has the speed and agility to take a short pass and beat defenders.  Iowa spreads their passes around to Keenan Davis and Kevontae Martin-Manley who have combined for 50+ catches, 750+ yards, and 7 touchdowns.  For Illinois, outside of Jenkins their second leading receiver has just 189 yards and 1 touchdown on the year, and their 3rd leading receiver (Millines) has just 1 catch for -6 yards in his last 5 games due to a foot injury. When your 3rd leading receiver has been out for half the season, it points to some problems. Michigan should be able to key on Jenkins and not worry nearly as much about the other players beating them as they did against Iowa or MSU.
I’m glad the schedule has set itself up this way with Michigan playing both Iowa and Michigan State on the road because I think it gave them good experience against offenses slightly better than Illinois.  Scheelhaase will be really the first mobile QB we face this year since Gray didn’t play for Minnesota and Persa never really ran for Northwestern, but I think the Michigan defense can hold them to around 20 points just like they did the Spartans and Hawkeyes.
So I guess our consensus could be described by saying that Illinois definitely has a handful of playmakers, but they don’t have the depth to make them a potent offense?  I think that’s fair.  Something has to explain the 28 points in 3 games.
Switching to the other side of the ball, as I mentioned before, Denard absolutely shredded Illinois last year through 3 quarters, putting up over 350 yards.  But, he hasn’t exactly been the same Denard in 2011 that he was in 2010.  Illinois strength seems to be in their front 7 with Brown at linebacker and Mercilus at defensive end.  As usual, the story will be whether or not we can throw the ball effectively.  Champaign is a notoriously windy field, so I’m a little concerned about us needing to throw the ball to win, but I feel like that is going to be the case again.Overall, the Illinois defense is #8 against the pass, #15 against the run, and is only giving up 17 pts per game.  But they’ve also played Penn State, OSU, and Purdue the last 3 weeks, so I think some of those stats are a little inflated.  And….they had a great defense coming into the Michigan game last year, and we obliterated them.  If we can protect Denard and give him time to pass, I think he can be effective and have a breakout game.  But I said the same thing last week and look what happened.
Illinois is a better defense than Iowa and has had 2 weeks to prepare for this game.  They will have the exact gameplan we saw from the Hawkeyes last week, but have better athletes to make it even more effective.  Something I read online that jumped out to me was a coach pointing out Norm Parker has rarely played press coverage in his time as the Iowa DC, but went almost exclusively to it late in the game.  He pressed the corners, brought the safeties up close, and dared us to complete a pass over the top.  Between Denard’s struggles putting touch on the ball and Roundtree/Hemingway not having the speed to make up for Denard’s problems, we tried multiple times and were never really close to completing one, at least not enough to force Parker to change his plan.  This gave them the ability to disrupt the short passes, or at least be in a position to interfere…er defend … the slants that are Denard’s favorite route.
I’m also very concerned about our run game if Fitz has lingering issues from whatever knocked him out of Iowa.  Our best run formation is the I, but teams don’t respect Denard passing out of that set and know he’s not going to run it, which gives them a serious advantage in execution.  Mercilus has the speed to pursue and keep contain, and Brown is a great linebacker able to fill the gaps and clean up the tackles.  We haven’t been effective running out of the shotgun as much, but that is our better option for passing, so we are in a tough spot. Go to the gun and give away pass, go to the I and give away run.  Until Borges shows an ability to mix it up, I think we will be slowed down to the tune of 14-21 total points.  
One thing we can’t overlook that will be in our favor is that Curt Mallory was a defensive assistant for Illinois from 2005-2010.  He was the secondary coach his first year and the Co-DC / Secondary Coach the last four years.  He has a lot of knowledge on the upper-classmen players on defense, and might be able to give Borges some hints on their tendencies or plays they might struggle with.  It’s not quite the advantage we had against SDSU, but sure beats our coaches looking at film of a team for the first time this season.   
I’m sensing some pessimism from you on this….I’m still not sold on this Illinois defense, mostly because of last year.  The other thing to remember is that despite only putting up 16 points last week, we
left 14 points on the board with two drives inside the 10 not ending in points.I like the point about Mallory, that should help.  The other thing I’m looking for is if Denard finally starts taking off running on passing plays.  Borges mentioned in his press conference this week that was something they were focusing on.  I really think 1-2 of those could turn into 40 yard gains and make a huge difference.  I guess we’ll see on Saturday.Speaking of Saturday – what’s your overall take?

Overall, I’m feeling a loss this week because of these factors :

  • Road game
  • Opponent coming off a bye week
  • Decent team embarrassed by 3 straight losses that wants a big win
  • Good athletes on defense
  • Serviceable offense
  • Michigan’s common theme of leaving points on the board in road games (turnovers, bad red zone playcalling)
It’s week 10, so I don’t see Borges changing his plays significantly (Ohio State I think we will see something new) and think we’ll see a couple mistakes/turnovers that make us leave points on the field.
The game will be close all day, but I think Illinois does enough to pull out the upset 24-17.  Very tough for me to pick that, but for both MSU and Iowa I predicted Borges would go away from stuff that wasn’t working, but it didn’t happen.  Maybe Hoke putting on the headset last week was an indicator he wanted to see some changes, but can’t predict it since I’ve been wrong twice now.
Your pessimism does not make me feel very good about things.  I’m concerned about the things you listed as well, but then I read something from an Illinois “insider” that made me feel better.  He basically said that Illinois is actually a lot like Michigan last year.  Pretty good offense, but teams that can outmuscle them and be more physical have given them problems (Ohio State, Purdue, and Penn State) in particular.  While we aren’t that physical as of yet, we’ve been looking for a chance to do that, and I think we can outmuscle the Illini.I actually really like the matchup for us defensively and think we can hold them in check.  I’m less enthused about our offense against their stout defense.  We need a monster game from Denard.  I know one is lurking in him, I’m just waiting for it to happen.  If it’s this week, we win.  A 300+ yard game from Denard will mean a Michigan victory.While Illinois really needs this one, I actually think Michigan needs this one more.  A win on Saturday gives Michigan 8 wins, and means that a 10 win season is a possibility, which would be a huge deal.  A loss, and Michigan needs to win one of the last 2 to avoid the same record as last year.

Michigan hasn’t been great on the road, but I think Ron Zook’s coaching incompetence negates that.  And despite the fact that these two teams scored over 130 points combined last year, I think the defenses will control the game on Saturday.  Ultimately, I think this game is too close to call.  When that happens, I go by the rule of who has the best player on the field.  And even though he’s looked more like Clark Kent at times this year, Denard Robinson still has his Superman cape somewhere.  I think Borges lets him loose and Michigan squeaks one out – something like 23-20.

Any final thoughts or things we missed?

My final thought is that I was convinced against Michigan State that Borges would let Denard loose and show us an offense that looked more like 2010 than 2011.  When that didn’t happen, I started to think the coaches were not going to sacrifice future success for short term success.  Running a spread offense short term would not help the O-line, or the running backs, or the receivers, or Devin get experience in the offense they want to run.  Then I thought maybe I was wrong and we’d see it against Iowa on the road because we needed a signature win.  Nope, again we saw the same stuff with the same mistakes.  I don’t have a problem with it, because long term success is much more important than a patchwork season to get one or two more wins, and if they run an offense totally suited to Denard, if he got hurt we’d be out of luck since there is only one Denard.  So I’m just feeling we won’t see Borges open things up the rest of the year, save Ohio State because that’s The Game, so I am going more conservative this week in my prediction.
I remember the exact point when I lost my mind during the 2009 season.  I used to love Michigan games in Champaign, there was just something great about a fall game being played at Illinois and watching it on TV. Since we hadn’t lost there since 1993 it became more fun because it was a likely win.  Then Roy Roundtree took a pass 76 yards and got tackled from behind at the 1-yard line.  If we had scored, Juice Williams likely would’ve been benched with us taking a 20-7 lead and we would’ve rolled to victory.  We couldn’t punch it in though, and Williams came back in to make sure a new quarterback didn’t screw up taking a snap in his own end zone.  Williams got them out to the 30 yard line in 5 plays, and on the 6th play Mikel Leshoure took the ball 70 yards for a touchdown, stealing our momentum and giving the Fighting Zookers a 14-13 lead.  That was the breaking point for me because I knew something was wrong.  We didn’t score again that game, and didn’t win again that season.  Since that point, I don’t like playing in Champaign, I don’t like Illinois, I don’t like Ron Zook, and I can’t take for granted that Michigan still has a ways to go talent-wise before they are at the point I “know” they will win a game against a team with a decent defense.  I really don’t want to lose this game because it will make closing the season 0-4 a real possibility, I just haven’t seen the offense click enough to think they will play with better execution on the road this week than they have the last two road games.  I hope it doesn’t happen, but even though this team and staff is vastly different than two years ago, I fear having an echo of my emotions from 2009 if we play a similar game this week as we did last week in Iowa.  
Given that last paragraph, my song of the week is –
“I remember when, I remember
I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space”
– Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy”
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