ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mike McCray spent part of his bye week at his apartment in Ann Arbor, decompressing after the first half of Michigan’s football season and playing with his dog, a Maltese-Chihuahua mix. Then, he headed home to Trotwood, Ohio, to spend time with his family.
Kyle Kalis went home to Lakewood, Ohio, where he indulged in home-cooked meals, carved pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns and got a fright or two at a local haunted house.
It was a brief respite from the grind of a season that’s reached the halfway point. The bye week, the Wolverines agree, fell at a good time.
“We have kind of an older team and I don’t want to say guys who are banged up, but you have the chance to get your legs back, and that is huge,” said Kalis, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman. “At the exact, midway point of the season, that’s when you want to get your legs back. That’s when you want to get your second wind. It hit at just the right time.
“I definitely prefer to take this bye week when we did. I feel really good.”
But McCray, Kalis and their teammates are aware of the goal in front of the as Michigan opens the second half of the season at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday against Illinois: Continue the scorching pace that the No. 3 Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) set in their first six games.
The Wolverines lead the nation in total defense (212.8 yards per game), are second in the nation in points scored (50.0), and have a prospective Heisman Trophy candidate in LB Jabrill Peppers.
Though some would argue the level of competition Michigan has faced isn’t up to snuff with the schedules of other programs, Michigan’s first-half résumé still is plenty enough to intimidate other opponents.
While the Illini (2-4, 1-2) have stumbled in their first season with Lovie Smith as head coach, Michigan isn’t underestimating its opponent.
“This,” Kalis said, “is a game that we cannot take off.”
Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak with a 24-7 win last Saturday at Rutgers, a week after losing 34-31 to Purdue — which fired coach Darrell Hazell on Sunday. The Illini game is the first of a six-game stretch for the Wolverines that runs the gamut, from conference upstarts to traditional rivals.
After Illinois, Michigan’s schedule goes: at Michigan State, hosting Maryland, at Iowa, at home against Indiana and the regular-season finale against fellow unbeaten and top-3 program Ohio State.
Many have already keyed in on that final game of the season. What could heighten that showdown with the Buckeyes? Easy: if both teams enter the final game of the regular season with identical 11-0 records.
What could also set up that showdown with the Buckeyes? Michigan not getting ahead of itself through the remainder of the schedule and continuing its mindset from the first half of the season.
Beginning with this week’s preparations for Illinois.
“There shouldn’t be any difference,” Michigan senior CB Channing Stribling said. “We should take each week and each part of the season the same, as always. I don’t think it should be us getting more focused now than we were then. The focus and the preparation is going to be the same the whole season.
“Throughout every game, our team got better. Just seeing the whole team come together, it’s healthy for this team.”
McCray summed up the task that is in front of him and his team.
“We just have to keep doing the same things,” the senior LB said. “If we do that, then I don’t think we’ll lose a game.”