When the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 12, it will be the Wolverines’ first visit to Champaign in eight seasons. Division re-alignment be damned! Despite Illinois’ fall amongst its Big Ten peers, this game screams tradition and Big Ten lore from the non-existent peaks of the plains in the heartland.
Standouts: Quarterback Shea Patterson and wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Patterson is coming off of a tremendous season in Ann Arbor. Twenty-two passing touchdowns on 2,600 yards through the air. A completion percentage above 64. Two rushing touchdowns. Just seven interceptions thrown. He’s at his best when he’s outside of the pocket improvising when things around him break down. Look for Shea Patterson to emerge, if he hasn’t already, as the Big Ten’s top quarterback.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has undeniable talent out on the edge. The question is just how serious his injury is and how close to 100 percent he’ll be for the start of the season. Michigan’s leader in receptions and receiving touchdowns in 2018 was not available in Spring Practice because of a lingering “soft tissue injury”. A former top recruit from Detroit high school power house Cass Tech, Peoples-Jones is a touchdown threat whenever he touches the ball.
Nico Collins on the opposite side of People-Jones should balance out this offense nicely, as teams will have trouble doubling up either one of those guys without leaving the other open. If a running back emerges, this offense could be nearly impossible to stop.
Michigan has to replace 2018 defensive captains in star linebacker Devin Bush (Pittsburgh Steelers) and defensive end Chase Winovich (New England Patriots).
Standouts: Linebacker Khaleke Hudson, Defensive backs LaVert Hill and Josh Metellus.
Khaleke Hudson’s 2018 campaign was not nearly as good as his 2017 season where he ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. With Devin Bush gone, Hudson will need to return to his 2017 form to really help defensive coordinator Don Brown recreate his stout front-7.
Michigan’s biggest strength on defense will be in the backfield, where Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus return with their combined four interceptions and 61 tackles. Both are future NFL players. Metellus has unteachable instincts when it comes to locating the ball in the air and he’ll likely lead the defense in turnovers in 2019.
Donovan Peoples-Jones is the best punt returner in the Big Ten, and easily one of the best in the entire country. He’s led the Big Ten in punt return attempts and punt return yardage each of the last two seasons.
The clip above shows not just elusiveness, but power with the stiff-arm in his 60-yard touchdown return against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He’s not as shifty as Purdue’s Rondale Moore, but he’s significantly bigger with more upper body strength and he has the speed to take it to the house with his long strides.
The Wolverines have a kicker battle on their hands this summer between senior Quinn Nordin and sophomore Jake Moody. Expect both to have opportunities in 2019. Senior punter Will Hart is as good as any in the Big Ten, having led the conference in yards per punt in 2018.
How Illinois will fare
Michigan is a top-10 team heading into the 2019 season and will be the toughest opponent on the Illinois schedule. The Wolverines have a lot to replace, but with a returning starting quarterback who can do it all and with weapons all around him — this could be one of those, “Yeah, we just aren’t talented enough to compete” games.
When Michigan comes to town, there’s a different buzz in Champaign. People care more about this game than they do say when Minnesota or Indiana comes to visit. Will this be a beat down, or will the Illini make Michigan sweat it out?
Michigan travels to Penn State the weekend after the Illinois game. For Michigan, a game against the Nittany Lions always has Big Ten East title implications on the line. Maybe, just maybe, Illinois can catch Michigan looking ahead to what’s next.