ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There’s no questioning Michigan’s season has been a success.
At 7-0, it can’t get any better than what it has been. And on Saturday, the Wolverines showcased, once again, that a game against an unranked Illinois should be a blowout. While top-10 ranked Big Ten teams like Ohio State and Nebraska lost to Penn State and struggled with 1-5 Purdue, Michigan put up 40-plus points, winning by a margin of greater than 30 for the fifth time this season in a 41-8 victory over Illinois.
After watching the game a second time, here’s the breakdown of the matchup that left Michigan walking away as the Big Ten’s best team.
Wilton Speight displayed poise
Michigan fans finally got what they wanted from their quarterback – a game better than just “good.” Michigan redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight was great on Saturday. Illinois’ No. 44 pass defense isn’t as bad as it was made out to be. In fact, it’s better than the rest of Michigan’s opponents besides Ohio State and Maryland, but Michigan’s speed and depth were too much for the Illini defenders.
The receiving corps at Michigan can make any quarterback look great. Speight displayed more accuracy and poise in the pocket, completing 70 percent of his passing attempts – the most accurate day of his career. He had multiple great passes, but none were better than this one to senior Amara Darboh where Speight had enough touch to float a pass over a linebacker in coverage and enough zip to hit Darboh between the cornerback and the safety.
Coming off the bye, Speight took a big step to becoming better than just “good.” Illinois’ No. 44 ranked pass defense was torched by Speight, who should continue to excel as three of Michigan’s final five games are against lower-ranked pass defenses: Michigan State (56), Indiana (45) and Iowa (86).
Michigan sophomore running back Karan Higdon has burst onto the scene, posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and three straight games with more than 80 yards. Higdon gained 108 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries Saturday. Higdon’s shiftiness, and pure speed, have always been a strength. His high school film showcased his pure speed, but the past couple of Saturday’s have showcased just how strong he continues to get, adding a new element to his game.
Michigan’s most memorable run in 2015 was De’Veon Smith breaking tackles in highlight-film fashion, but Higdon might have already offered the best run for 2016 when he somehow found a way to the end zone from 43 yards out against Illinois.
Smith, a senior, has been the unquestioned leader of this backfield both on and off the field. I still feel that way leadership-wise – and Smith is a guy who can make it in the NFL – but Higdon is the starter heading into Michigan State. He’s been an all-around better back than any other, especially consistency-wise. But the running back by committee strategy will likely continue.
Quick notes on the rest of the offense
- Senior fullback Khalid Hill has more touchdowns (eight rushing, one receiving) than Michigan’s defense has given up the entire season (eight).
- The offensive line looked good, and true freshman Ben Bredeson played great. Jim Harbaugh said that he and Ben Braden were the best duo on the line Saturday. A promising thought going forward, since Michigan is without Grant Newsome.
- Amara Darboh had five receptions for 99 yards. What should alarm opponents about the receivers group is that senior Jehu Chesson only had three catches. Last year at this time, Chesson had a streak of multiple touchdowns, catching eight scores during a 17-quarter span.
- Eddie McDoom could be seeing more playing time soon after he rushed for 23 yards on two carries and caught a 33-yard pass.
The defense cemented itself as the nation’s best
If giving up fewer touchdowns than your fullback has scored all season wasn’t enough, Michigan had the numbers to prove that it is the nation’s best defensive unit.
The defensive line could probably do well for the Cleveland Browns this season. With guys like Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley dominating off the edge, and the interior being stuffed constantly by Ryan Glasgow, Mo Hurst and Bryan Mone, its unique nine-man rotation is hard for teams to read on film, making for a difficult time dealing with an already uber-talented front.
The safeties also stood out, playing close to every other unit’s level. Since struggling against Colorado, safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas have come out looking brand new. Thomas was in coverage nearing the end of the half when he read a screen to perfection: as soon as the ball left Jeff George, Jr.’s hands, Thomas had his tongue out waiting to make his first interception ever.
Illinois finished with just 172 yards, the fourth game in which Michigan has held an opponent to fewer than 200 yards (Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Rutgers) – and all four times were in Big Ten games. Alabama’s defense has allowed more than 490 yards twice (Ole Miss, Arkansas), and held three opponents under 200 yards (Kent State, USC and Tennessee). Michigan hasn’t given up more than 351 yards the entire season.
The domination continued Saturday when Illinois’ Jeff George, Jr. went just 4-of-15 for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception, the third consecutive game an opposing quarterback has completed fewer than 10 passes. Michigan has given up more than 150 passing yards once, and held five of the seven teams it has faced to under 100 yards passing.
Illinois had 77 rushing yards, but 45 of them came from one play. In fact, the player who had that run ended up finishing with 43 yards. If you take away that one play, he finished with minus-2 yards, and Michigan would have allowed 32 yards on the ground.
Nonetheless, Michigan only gave up 172 yards total.
Just take a look at this graphic from MGoBlog’s Ace Anbender that depicts just how good this defense has been:
— Ace Anbender (@AceAnbender) October 24, 2016
I wanted to save the best stat for last.
Michigan had the ball for 41 minutes, while Illinois had it for just under 19 minutes. Michigan ran 87 plays to Illinois’ 38. When you have the ball that much longer, teams are going to win, unless they give up touchdowns on every single play.
The Wolverines are 7-0, carry the No. 1 defense nationally, and the country’s third-best scoring offense. That’s a recipe for success. As long as Michigan doesn’t mess with the cook book, then the product should continue to come out with a fine-tasting zero in the loss column. East Lansing awaits the Wolverines for the battle to win the Paul Bunyan Trophy on Saturday at noon.