ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Considering Illinois’ record and its stumbles in the first half of the season, it would seem easy for Michigan to look a few days ahead on the schedule and start salivating over an in-state rival that has fallen upon hard football times.
After all, East Lansing is less than an hour northwest of Ann Arbor, and seemingly nearly as close on the schedule. But so far this week, Michigan insists it’s been focused on what’s at hand Oct. 22, not what’s ahead on Oct. 29.
The Illini come first. Before Michigan State . . . or any further opponents.
Fresh off a midseason bye, here is what Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) will need to focus on to avoid a stunner at home against the Illini (2-4, 1-2) on Saturday.
1. Don’t get caught napping out of the bye week
Many of Michigan’s players believe the bye week fell at just the right time, exactly six weeks into the season — a point where players could recover physically and psychologically. Yet Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh says he worries about two particular weeks of the season: the week going into a bye and the week coming out of a bye.
It might be too easy for players to slip into a relaxed state of mind, and it might be difficult for some to return to the structured cycle of game-week preparation (which includes classes, practices, meetings and training sessions). The week off was a certain reward, but not one that Michigan can rest on — even if the Wolverines are a 35 1/2-point favorite as of Tuesday afternoon.
2. Maintain the intensity level against a team that isn’t of the same skill level
The Illini lost to Purdue on Oct. 8, but responded last weekend by taking a 17-point lead en route to a 24-7 win in Piscataway, N.J. The Illini enter this weekend as one of four Big Ten West teams with a 1-2 conference record, joining Minnesota, Purdue and No. 10 Wisconsin. In Saturday’s win at Rutgers, the Illini completed just 6 of 14 passes and won despite being outgained 387-320.
Illinois doesn’t have the same talent level or gaudy statistics as Michigan, and epitomizes the mix of talent the Wolverines will see in the second half. Michigan’s schedule in its final six weeks of the regular season ranges from national powers (Ohio State) to underachievers (Michigan State) to upstart teams (Indiana and Maryland). Under first-year head coach Lovie Smith, Illinois has gone through its growing pains.
3. Continue to work toward a balance between the pass and the run
Michigan finished with a season-high 600 yards Oct. 8 at Rutgers, and quarterback Wilton Speight finished with only 100 yards passing (though to be fair Speight was lifted early in the second half for John O’Korn.)
Illinois is middle of the Big Ten pack in pass defense (203.3 yards per game, tied for seventh with Nebraska) but 11th in rushing defense (181.5 yards). Last week at Rutgers, however, Illinois’ defense scored a touchdown off an interception and recovered 4 fumbles.
4. Be smart against Illinois’ secondary
The Illini have 6 interceptions, and quarterbacks that have played against the Illini are a combined 105-for-163 passing for barely 200 yards a game with only 5 touchdowns. If the Wolverines can’t manage substantial passing yardage against the Illini, they’ll have to focus on the run, much as they did against Penn State and Rutgers — and those were productive games for Michigan’s running backs, with 326 and 481 yards, respectively.
5. Don’t look ahead on the schedule
Sure, that Oct. 29 date against Michigan State — which is currently winless in the Big Ten — looks more and more enticing after the Spartans’ 54-40 loss to Northwestern last Saturday. And the college football world had Nov. 26 in Columbus circled on their calendars long before Michigan and Ohio State got off to 6-0 starts. But Michigan is three days into the second half of its season, and can’t turn a few pages ahead to focus on its top two rivals.