ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Lopsided victories are becoming a certain habit for at Michigan.
For the second time in three weeks, Michigan notched an impressive double-digit decision with a 41-8 win Saturday against Illinois.
From the start, No. 3 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) didn’t hold back, and utilized one of its most versatile players to set the tone against the Illini (2-5, 1-3).
Here are five things we learned today about Michigan:
- We knew Jabrill Peppers is a versatile guy. But Peppers, who has become a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, is even more versatile than we thought. The redshirt sophomore, who is listed as a linebacker, played at three offensive positions on Michigan’s first drive: wide receiver, running back and Wildcat quarterback, and accounted for 10 of Michigan’s 75 yards on its opening drive.
- Michigan is taking advantage of a competitively unbalanced schedule. Clearly, Michigan holds the competitive advantage, notching blowout after blowout. After beating Rutgers 78-0 two weeks ago and enjoying a bye last week, the Wolverines jumped all over the Illini, leading 31-0 lead at halftime and picking up its fifth win by at least 27 points. Other than Wisconsin, Michigan’s stiffest competition this season was Colorado, which has gotten stronger as the season has progressed. Illinois, which started an untested quarterback, simply was another outmatched opponent for the Wolverines.
- What field-goal kicking competition? Prior to Saturday, Michigan hadn’t lined up for a field goal since Oct. 1, when Kenny Allen and Ryan Tice went a combined 0 for 3 in a 14-7 win against Wisconsin. Allen, however, is back as Michigan’s primary kicker — he handles punting, kickoff and kicking duties for Michigan — and he made a 23-yard kick with three seconds left in the first half, and likely offered proof that the kicking competition from earlier this month had been settled.
- Michigan has even more options on offense. Michigan lost freshman RB Chris Evans after a hit to the head, but had already found another option in tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. Wheatley scored Michigan’s second touchdown, a 21-yard pass from Wilton Speight, the second tight end to score for Michigan in a span of a little more than seven minutes.
- Near-perfect pass defense. Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. — the son of former Illinois and NFL quarterback Jeff George — had a rocky debut as the Illini starter against the nation’s top passing defense. George went 0 for 7 and was intercepted once in the first half, a statistic that only helped Michigan’s secondary. By the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Illinois completed only three passes, including George’s 43-yard pass to Malik Turner, and the Illini didn’t get on the board until about five minutes into the fourth, when George found Turner again for a 43-yard touchdown.
There was no turning point in this game, as Michigan asserted itself from the start with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that had 10 different formations — including the famed “train” drive in which Michigan lined up its players one-by-one, then broke and lined up at their spots before the snap. Michigan averaged seven plays in its five first-half scoring plays, and maintained possession for more than 21 minutes of the 30-minute first half, en route to a 31-0 lead.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said over and over in the last two weeks that his two least favorite weeks are … the week going into the bye week and the week coming out of the bye week, as there was a palpable fear of losing a certain level of intensity. Those fears were calmed about five minutes into the game, as Michigan stormed to an early lead.
Will we see the same kind of one-sided outcome next Saturday at Michigan State? We’ll definitely see the same level of intensity from Michigan, and likely a similar level from the Spartans, who played Saturday night at Maryland but who have dominated the rivalry series against Michigan in the last eight years. The in-state rivalry game, however, always brings out something extra in the two teams.
29:04: By the time Michigan took a 34-0 lead with 43 seconds left in the third quarter, it had maintained possession of the ball for nearly a half-hour of the 45 minutes of game time.
What it means
Against a team that’s still trying to find its footing, Michigan found its best offensive balance — Karan Higdon topped the 100-yard rushing mark with a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter — and by the third quarter the receivers shined with 253 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 catches. Michigan has continued its run through the schedule, and many regard Saturday’s win over the Illini as an appetizer for the Wolverines as they now prepare for Michigan State next Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.