Block out the noise
The Lovie Smith era appears to be on life support. Going into the Week 3 matchup with Eastern Michigan, everyone understood that a loss to EMU could spell doom. Then, the Illini lost to EMU and every week since then, the calls to fire Lovie have grown increasingly louder. The noise ramped up after a loss to Nebraska in Week 4 and hit a fever pitch after the debacle at Minnesota last week. With all the noise in the system, it is imperative that the Illini stay composed and focused. Some early focus and composure from the Illini could lead to trouble for a Michigan team that is dealing with noise in its own system.
Make something happen early whatever way possible
Michigan comes into this one with numerous issues of its own as they face an existential crisis stemming from the realization that they have not improved as a program since Harbaugh’s first year in Ann Arbor. There is also a lot of bitterness from Michigan fans who feel that new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, a supposed RPO guru, sold them a bill of goods he cannot deliver. So, long story short, a good start from the Illini (10-0 or 14-0 lead) could doom Michigan. The same is true of the Illini. A quick start for Michigan could doom the Illini.
If Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith has any tricks up his sleeve (flea flicker, RB passes, statute of liberty) he better use them early in an effort to gain psychological leverage against Michigan. On that note, if Lovie has any tricks up his sleeve (fake punt, fake field goal, onside kick), he needs to use them early as possible.
Make Shea Patterson beat you
The Michigan offense has struggled early in the season primarily because Shea Patterson has struggled to make the correct reads in the pass game and in RPO situations. Therefore, the Illini must do whatever they can to key in on the Michigan run game that is led by star freshman running back Zach Charbonnet. This means getting a spy on Charbonnet and attacking him on zone reads and RPOs, especially on first down.
Don’t get me wrong, Michigan has a WR trio (Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, and Tariq Black) that is as good as any in the Big Ten, but Patterson has proved incapable of maximizing these receivers. Alternatively, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has shown that he is incapable of getting Patterson comfortable with his receivers.
So, the Illini must key in on Charbonnet and get Michigan in second and third and long where Patterson has to try to make plays. If they do this, then it will take Michigan’s offense out of its comfort zone and put Patterson in a position where he will have trouble succeeding.