Michigan vs. Illinois version 2019 may seem like a mismatch, and it certainly is. The history between these two sides is almost unparalleled. Go to any bar in Champaign’s Campustown (like Legends and Murphy’s) and you will see at least a couple of old photos of Memorial Stadium and some Illini teams of yore in games against Michigan. Michigan has bigger rivals than Illinois, sure — but the Big Ten roots of these two sides go back well over 100 years.
Michigan are winners of the last four games against Illinois: In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. The Illini won the two games before that streak in back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009.
When Michigan Has the Ball
For those who have not been paying much attention to Michigan this year, Jim Harbaugh brought in a new offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis who likes to use spread-em-out-wide formations with a continued emphasis on running the football. There are not nearly as many two tight end sets as we saw when Jim Harbaugh was calling plays and using his offense, but Michigan still relies on a punishing ground game to open up the pass.
Zach Charbonnet has lived up to and surpassed the hype... thus far
With Karan Higdon having graduated last year and Chris Evans kicked off the team, one of Michigan’s top 2019 recruits was running back Zach Charbonnet from just outside of Los Angeles, California. Charbonnet needed to come in and assume the role right away, and he’s done so with ease.
In five games played, he has 61 rushing attempts for 260 yards and four touchdowns. He also has seven receptions. His game against Iowa was not his best (13 attempts for 42 yards and a touchdown), but the impressive thing with Charbonnet is that he always falls forward and is so physical running through oncoming tacklers. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he has a massive build and he looks like he can be an every-down back if his coaches want him to be.
Runs like this seem to define what Charbonnet is all about — patience in finding the hole behind his o-line, stutter steps before the burst, and ultimately falling forward for the tough yards:
Zach Charbonnet scored his third TD of game and Michigan sends the game to 2OT pic.twitter.com/PTPznySp4U— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) September 7, 2019
Against Army a couple of weeks ago, Charbonnet rushed 33 times for 100 yards and three touchdowns.
Michigan ranks 11th in rushing offense in the Big Ten. That’s not particularly good. Illinois ranks 13th in rushing defense in the Big Ten. That’s less than ideal going up against a team that has a better-and-improving-by-the-game offensive line.
Michigan’s passing offense is lacking, and frankly looks terrible
Perhaps this was to be expected considering the change in offensive philosophy. It does not matter how talented the quarterback and his surrounding personnel appear to be — that drastic of a change can sometimes take a full season, if not more to fully adjust to.
Michigan ranks 9th in the Big Ten in passing offense, and their 56.6 completion percentage is only better than Northwestern, Maryland and Illinois in the conference. Quarterback Shea Patterson (who contemplated leaving for the NFL after last season before ultimately deciding to return for his senior year) has completed just 58 percent of his passes and has thrown six touchdowns to three interceptions. He did not throw a touchdown pass in the Iowa game and, statistically, was not particularly good at all.
In the Iowa game, Patterson showed his mobility outside of the pocket and picked up some nice yardage running the football when his receivers were covered downfield. It’s clear Shea Patterson does not look as dangerous as he did a year ago, though most of that does not seem to be his fault. The play-calling and circumstances surrounding the coordinator switch are equally, if not more to blame for Patterson’s woes.
As bad as Michigan’s passing game has looked, to Shea Patterson’s credit he does spread the ball around
Donovan Peoples-Jones is the wide receiver most non-Michigan fans are familiar with, yet there are four players (Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Nick Eubanks) who have more receptions than People-Jones does at this point. Against Iowa, Patterson threw the ball to seven different receivers. Against Rutgers the week before, that number was eight.
Two tight-end sets have been replaced by three and four wide-receiver sets in the Josh Gattis offense, which makes covering these receivers that much more challenging. Minnesota’s receivers lit up Illinois last week, and unfortunately for Lovie Smith and his 12th ranked Big Ten pass defense, Michigan comes in willing to spread the ball around to whichever receiver is open.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Up until last the two Saturdays when Michigan beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 10-3 and Rutgers the week before 52-0, the Wolverines’ D was not looking very good. Last season, Michigan boasted one of the country’s best defensive units under defensive wizard/coordinator Don Brown. With leaders of that 2018 defense in Devin Bush and Chase Winovich now in the NFL (along with fellow starters Rashan Gary, Bryan Mone, David Long and Tyree Kinnel), Michigan needed to show that this 2019 team was capable of stopping Big Ten teams in big time games.
So far, so good in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s defense against Iowa was spectacular, and downright scary if you’re a Fighting Illini supporter. The Wolverines sacked Iowa’s quarterback Nate Stanley eight times and intercepted him three times. It did not matter that Michigan was 3-13 on third downs or that the offense did not reach 300 total yards. The defense dominated the game start to finish — much like it did a season ago in pretty much every game it played in.
Michigan ranks 22nd in the country in total defense. The only Big Ten teams better are Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State.
Linebacker Khaleke Hudson and cornerback Lavert Hill are standouts in a deep, talented defense
Middle linebacker Khaleke Hudson has assumed the Devin Bush role of last year as the heart and soul of this defense. He was a star in the Iowa game last week (11 total tackles) and leads his team in tackles this season. Up front, Kwity Paye is having a breakout season. He leads Michigan in sacks and tackles for loss. He got banged up a bit in the Iowa game, and is questionable to play against Illinois on Saturday.
Lavert Hill, next to Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, might be the best cornerback in Big Ten. The senior from Detroit already has two interceptions on the year — and when he does pick the ball off, he’s as good as anyone at returning it the other way for a score. He has two pick-sixes in his career, is a ball-hawk and regularly bats down passes while covering the opposing team’s best receiver.
Check out the technique on his interception against Iowa last week. It’s perfect:
Safety Josh Metellus has two years of full-time starting duties under his belt, and had three interceptions last year. Like Lavert Hill, he’s oozing of NFL potential and will enter the league with a ton of experience in high-profile football games.
Michigan’s defense looked suspect in its opening games three games against Middle Tennessee State, Army and Wisconsin. The last two weeks, something’s awakened the beast that is a Don Brown-coached Michigan D. The switch turned on. There is no way this group is as good as it was last year, but it is definitely good enough to roll over Illinois on Saturday.
Special Teams Notes
Punt and Kick Return game
In the return game, Donovan People-Jones is a threat and if he’s the guy back there returning punts, the Illini have to be wary of just how explosive this he is. He had a punt return touchdown in 2018 against Nebraska and in 2017 against Air Force.
As far as punt returns are concerned in 2019, Michigan rotates between Peoples-Jones (who has battled some injury issues in his career), Ronnie Bell and Lavert Hill.
The only player to return kicks so far has been true freshman wide receiver Giles Jackson. Like Zach Charbonnet, Jackson is a 2019 recruit from California who’s explosive enough to contribute right away for the Wolverines. He has yet to score a kick return for touchdown, but he averages 22.3 yards per return on his eight tries. He’s small and wiggly, with a ton of breakaway speed to eventually take it to the (Big) house.
Michigan uses different kickers for extra points and field goals. That’s weird. It’s a competition that still has not been completely resolved.
For the most part, sophomore kicker Jake Moody handles Michigan’s field goal attempts, while senior kicker Quinn Nordin takes care of the extra points. Nordin is 12/12 on those extra points, while Jake Moody is 5/6 kicking field goals. Moody’s lone miss happened last week against Iowa — a 34-yarder.