“I’m not entirely sure what happened.”
Obviously, the Fighting Illini lost at home to the Michigan Wolverines. Illinois was defeated for the fourth consecutive game and is now 0-3 in B1G play. Going in, the loss seemed inevitable — Michigan was 4-1 and ranked No. 16 in the country, leaps and bounds more talented and competent than the Illini. Before halftime, I wondered if Illinois was going to lobby for a “running clock” rule the rest of the game. By the end of the day, lots of us were confused about what team we were really watching. Things were not going well, then they were, then they weren’t again.
Defense: Hooray for fumbles!
Much like in the B1G opener against Nebraska, the Illini stayed in the game in part due to takeaways. Illinois recovered two Michigan fumbles (and a remarkable 10 of 11 forced fumbles this season), one of which led to a short field and a Dre Brown touchdown.
Illinois did allow three passing touchdowns, but limited Shea Patterson to just 194 yards. However, the rushing defense was the same old, same old. The Wolverines reached triple digits in rushing yards midway through the first quarter. Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet each amassed more than 100 yards on the ground, the second straight game in which the Illini allowed multiple 100-yard rushers. This is the blueprint to beating Illinois.
Michigan almost gagged the game away. But Lovie needing to trust his defense to make stops late in the game is NOT a spot you want to be in.
Offense: Few bright spots...again
The Brandon Peters Reunion Tour was postponed due to the current Illinois/former Michigan quarterback being out with a concussion. The Illini leaned on redshirt freshman Matt Robinson to manage the first-team offense. Robinson finished a respectable 16-of-25 for 192 yards and two touchdowns (1 passing, 1 rushing) in his first collegiate start. He exhibited mobility at times, but he really struggled with lengthy throws and coughed up the ball twice. I do think Robinson has value for this team, but not as a QB1. Isaiah Williams also appeared, but didn’t show much — 0-for-4 passing, and only four yards on four rushing attempts. Lots of fans are clamoring for I-Will, but it’s clear — healthy or not — that he isn’t ready. For better or worse, Peters is the best we’ve got.
The Wolverines contained the run, namely Reggie Corbin, throughout the day. I’m thrilled anytime something good happens for Dre Brown, so it was nice to see him find the end zone Saturday. But when you’re a run-oriented team,, it’s REALLY difficult to come back when you’re behind.
Josh Imatorbhebhe was the other positive. The USC transfer tallied his first 100-yard receiving game and scored Illinois’ first touchdown. He’s been the Illini’s most reliable receiver and matches up with any defender on the field (though it’s worth noting that Michigan sat their top DB, Lavert Hill).
Special Teams: When Will It Matter?
When I talked with Maize N Brew about this game I mentioned that special teams was a strength of the Illini. That was mostly true on Saturday. James McCourt hit another 50-yard field goal and Blake Hayes recovered from a few bad punts and a blocked kick early to finish with a 47-yard average. At some point this unit will give Illinois an advantage. Just don’t ask me when.
I, along with many other Illini fans, feel conflicted about this game. On the one hand, I’m glad that the team showed fight and played hard. The game was very ugly at the start and it easily could have devolved into a 50-60 point loss (the gripe with this team has never really been about the players, they’re trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit). On the other, this outcome is the kind of stuff that fuels the fans that don’t see change as necessary (See! They’re improving...they had a chance to beat Michigan!).
Of course I want Illinois to win every game, but there are times where I want them to win less than others. Moral victories are okay in year one or two...but year four? Not interested.