ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan is on an upward trajectory as the second half of its season begins. Illinois, meanwhile, hopes to continue to rebuild under a new coach after more than 14 months of turmoil in the football program and in the athletic department.
No. 3 Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) hosts Illinois (2-4, 1-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and with the Illini’s struggles so far this season, some project this as a one-sided affair — in fact, Illinois enters Saturday’s game as a 36 1/2-point underdog.
There’s a little history to this matchup, as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Illinois coach Lovie Smith meet for the first time as college coaches. The former NFL coaches met in 2012, when Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers beat Smith’s Chicago Bears 32-7 behind a 243-yard performance from 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick.
Michigan and Illinois also meet for the first time since 2012. In Michigan’s 45-0 win four years ago, Denard Robinson went 7-of-11 passing for 159 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 11 times for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
Shannon Ryan, who covers Illinois for the Chicago Tribune, offers some insight on the Illini. Follow Shannon and her coverage on Twitter: @sryantribune.
Q: What foundation/culture does Lovie Smith want to establish in the program?
Ryan: Let’s be honest. The first order of business was for Smith to make Illinois reputable again. The Illini suffered off-field and on-field embarrassments under coach Tim Beckman, who was fired after an investigation found he mistreated players’ injuries. Smith is well-respected as a long-time NFL coach and brings a level of sophistication and name recognition to the program that has been glaringly absent in past seasons.
Q: On that tangent — what changes have you seen in the program since Smith took over?
Ryan: On the field, they don’t look that much different. They’re struggling worse than many thought they would. That win against a pretty pitiful Rutgers team wasn’t pretty. But I think the main difference is Smith is willing to take some chances to figure out a winning formula, opting to go with young players often and switching up starting roles.
Q. At the same time, what is the biggest challenge that Smith — who, right now, is the face of the program — faces in his first season?
Ryan: It’s all about recruiting. The coaches are getting in some doors they didn’t thanks to Smith’s name recognition and reputation as a NFL coach. His father-figure role as a coach doesn’t hurt. But Smith has to land some big names in the state to build the program.
Q: Who is one player to watch on offense, and one player to watch on defense at Illinois?
Ryan: I’m going to bend the rules and name two on offense. Running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin came into the season with no expectations. Foster had announced he was transferring last year before changing his mind because he felt so buried on the depth chart. Corbin is a redshirt freshman. They balance each other nicely. Foster just had his second 100-yard game at Rutgers. Corbin played sparingly the first three games but has rushed for 72, 92 and 90 yards in three conference games.
On defense, defensive end Dawuane Smoot is a potential NFL player. He’s versatile and strong on the pass rush. He is tied in the Big Ten with two tackles per loss per conference game.
Q: Illinois has a challenging schedule in the second half of the season. What is a realistic finish for the Illini, not just record-wise but as far as team goals/statistics/benchmarks?
Ryan: Wins and losses don’t matter much at this point but they don’t want to end the season on an embarrassing losing streak either. Again, that won’t help with recruiting. Illinois has to start looking competitive in games. They have at times, but they find ways to lose winnable games like their loss to Purdue. Picking up wins against Minnesota and Northwestern would meet the low expectations of the season and I see them finishing with a 4-8 record.