Last week’s win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights gave Illinois its first Big Ten win of the football season. It kept the Fighting Illini out of the basement of the conference and perhaps gave them some confidence heading into what will be their toughest test of the season thus far: an October 22 game on the road at No. 3 Michigan.
Coming off of their own win over Rutgers prior to a bye week, the Michigan Wolverines are currently deemed the third-best team in the country. The reasons are obvious. Besides an unblemished 6-0 record, Michigan has dominated each opponent it has faced this year. Outside of a seven-point win over Wisconsin, Michigan’s average margin of victory in 2016 has been more than 46 points. That’s also why Illinois enters this contest as a massive 34-point underdog.
This isn’t new for Michigan games, where all seven contests have seen the Wolverines favored by double digits. Las Vegas doesn’t necessarily believe UM will win by 34 points remember. It is simply searching for the threshold in which it will garner equal action on both sides of the equation. It’s the public that doesn’t think Illinois +31 is enough.
This makes some semblance of sense outside of Michigan’s dominance. Illinois has not been a very good football team this season and grades out as the third-worst team Michigan will play according to ESPN’s FPI. The win over Rutgers did nothing to tamper those thoughts, either. Rutgers is the worst team in the Big Ten and fell to these Wolverines 78-0 a week prior. In the Illinois game, Rutgers again seemed anemic on offense, though it had the same game plan as the Illini. Illinois completed just six passes all game; both teams topped 200 yards rushing, though Illinois looked more impressive doing so.
That has been Illinois’ M.O. all season. It’s ground game is its main strength right now. As a team, the Illini are already well over 1,000 yards on the ground while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Not a single ball carrier this season averages fewer than 5.0 yards per carry. But Illinois will need more than that against Michigan. The Wolverines boast the nation’s very best defense. They are also the best defense on first down and the best on third down. Yards, points, and everything else are hard to come by against these guys. Rather than looking for an outright win, fans are resigned to hoping for a moral victory by game’s end.
If there is an area for Illinois to exploit, it would be Michigan’s special teams, where the Wolverines don’t quite stack up to the heights they reach on offense and defense. Of course, that ignores the punt return unit which features Jabrill Peppers, a jack-of-all-trades that looks to be a sure-fire Top 5 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Illinois will pound the ball on the ground against Michigan as it always does, but it will need to limit mistakes. There were too many penalties even against Rutgers last week. With both quarterback options banged up (Chayce Crouch has a shoulder issue and Wes Lunt was out with a back injury), the Wolverines will be able to focus on the Illini’s strength, so they cannot beat themselves with errors and untimely turnovers. With four teams in the Big Ten West stuck at just one conference win, Illinois still has a chance to move up the standings. However, playing against Michigan will not supply it with such an opportunity this week.