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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Michigan Wolverines Preview and Prediction

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There may not be a more rested team in the entire country heading into this weekend than the Michigan Wolverines (6-0) as they get set to take on Illinois (2-4) at the Big House.

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Yes, it was just a typical bye week for the Maize and Blue, but the starters had additional time to catch their breath as they sat out basically all of the second half the week prior during their 78-0 trouncing of Rutgers. The Wolverines were finally able to run the football with authority in the win, tying a program record for most rushing touchdowns in a game with nine. That is a trend that will need to continue as Michigan progresses towards the latter portion of its schedule.

The Fighting Illini got a much-need victory last week against that same Rutgers squad, though not in the same dominating fashion of the Wolverines, winning 24-7. The win snapped a four-game losing skid, giving Illinois its first victory since Week 1 and first victory this year over an FBS team. Progress.

Illinois at Michigan

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

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Spread: Michigan -35

Three Things to Watch

1. Who starts at QB for Illinois?
Head coach Lovie Smith announced on Monday that starting quarterback Wes Lunt is improving, but did not confirm whether or not he would be available this Saturday against the Wolverines. Lunt injured his back two weeks ago against Purdue and was replaced by sophomore Chayce Crouch, who wound up rushing for 137 yards against the Boilermakers. Crouch got the start this past weekend against Rutgers and was far less effective, completing just six passes and rushing for only 25 yards. While mobile quarterbacks have given the Wolverines troubles in the past, the Illini have no chance if they cannot at least threaten the defense through the air as well. As of now, the only information that has been provided is that Lunt is “getting better” but this looks to be a game-time decision on who gets the nod to start.

2. No Letdown
Simply put from an outsider’s perspective, this is a game Michigan just needs to get through injury-free as the Wolverines clearly have more talent on both sides of the football. But don’t tell the players that. The Wolverines are putting just as much stock into this game as they are any other on their schedule. "It's not hard to because that's who we're playing this week and everything we have is focused on them," Kalis said to the Detroit Free Press earlier this week about facing the Fighting Illini. "Regardless what their record is, regardless how they've been playing we're going to come out the same way we did against Rutgers, same way against Wisconsin." Staying sharp, even against lesser teams like Illinois, will be imperative for Michigan to make a good impression on both the voters for the two major polls and especially the members of the College Football Playoff committee.

3. Turnovers
Back to his days as head coach of the Chicago Bears, the one thing Lovie Smith’s defenses were most known for was forcing timely turnovers. Early in his tenure at Illinois, Smith is already putting his stamp on the defense. The Illini are currently ranked second behind Ohio State in the Big Ten in forced turnovers with 13 and are tied for the fourth-best turnover margin (+8) in the entire country. Unfortunately, this week they are facing a Michigan offense that has done a really good job when it comes to ball security. The Wolverines are tied for second in the FBS with just four giveaways. If Illinois is to make a game of this, the Ilini will have to find a way to force not just one, but multiple turnovers.

Final Analysis

Illinois has two things going for it heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup with Michigan. If Chayce Crouch ends up getting the start at quarterback in place of an ailing Wes Lunt, he does make for a mobile option that has given the Michigan defense some trouble in previous games. Secondly, and more importantly, the Wolverines have a visit to East Lansing to face in-state rival Michigan State looming, so it’s possible the Fighting Illini could catch Michigan looking ahead. All that said, Illinois has nowhere near the horses on either side of the ball to keep up with the Wolverines for a half, much less four quarters. This won’t get completely out of hand like the Rutgers game did, but the score should be well out of reach by halftime.

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Prediction: Michigan 44, Illinois 7

— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.