ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Michigan and Illinois meet at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday for the first time in more than four years, the Wolverines and the Fighting Illini will enter Michigan Stadium from near-opposite ends of the spectrum.
No. 3 Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) has forged its place among the nation’s top teams this season, while Illinois (2-4, 1-2) tries to find its footing in its first season under former NFL coach Lovie Smith.
The Illini defeated Rutgers 24-7 last Saturday to earn their first Big Ten win of the season, while Michigan had a bye.
In the last meeting between the two teams, Michigan defeated Illinois 45-0 on Oct. 13, 2012. Michigan leads the all-time series 69-23-2.
When Michigan has the ball
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week that despite having four running backs with at least 250 yards, he doesn’t want a bell cow among the group, in the name of preservation and longevity.
So does that mean Illinois will have to prepare to stop four backs, and potentially a fifth in fullback and short-yardage specialist Khalid Hill … and a sixth in Drake Johnson, who could return after missing Michigan’s first six games?
Possibly. Michigan had 11 rushers combine for 481 yards against Rutgers two weeks ago, and Illinois is 11th in the Big Ten in rush defense (185.2 yards per game). Additionally, Illinois is seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense (203.3 yards).
When Illinois has the ball
Illinois has a quarterback quandary on its hands. Wes Lunt sat out the Rutgers victory after sustaining a back injury Oct. 8 against Purdue, and sophomore Chayce Crouch went 6-for-14 passing for 92 yards with a touchdown and an interception vs. Rutgers.
Here’s the rub: Whoever starts, Lunt or Crouch, will have to lead the Illini against the nation’s top passing defense; Michigan has allowed 113.7 passing yards a game. Illinois rushers have been a bright spot (sixth in the Big Ten at 189.8 yards) but face the nation’s No. 8 rush defense (99.2 yards).
Jabrill Peppers has been the focal point for Michigan’s special teams, with 14 punt returns for 249 yards and a touchdown, while Kendrick Foster is Illinois’ top kick returner, with 14 returns for 315 yards. Illinois is last in the Big Ten in punt returns (4.5 yards per return), while Michigan is last in the conference in kickoff returns (15.5 yards).
Harbaugh said Michigan’s field-goal kicking competition between Kenny Allen, Ryan Tice and Quinn Nordin is ongoing, though Michigan didn’t kick a field goal Oct. 8 in a 78-0 win at Rutgers.
Two former NFL coaches meet for the first time as college coaches when Harbaugh’s Wolverines host Smith’s Illini. While Smith is in the early months of a reclamation project at Illinois, Harbaugh has his program in prime competitive form in his second season at Michigan. The Wolverines are a team that zeroes in on its opponent’s weaknesses and takes advantage of those.
Some jokingly call this a “second bye week” for Michigan, but that’s not the case in Harbaugh’s mind. Each week, he and his staff prepare their team with a championship-game mentality. Don’t expect Michigan to loaf during plays, even against a lesser opponent like Illinois, which snapped a four-game losing streak last weekend at Rutgers. Michigan has faced a few opponents who aren’t on the same competitive level as the Wolverines, but the Wolverines have capitalized on that. Expect Michigan to do the same Saturday against the Illini.
Rachel Lenzi’s prediction: Michigan 48, Illinois 3
Brandon Justice’s prediction: Michigan 45, Illinois 3