The Michigan Wolverines head down to Champaign for the first time in eight years as they get set to take on a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team that hasn’t had a win in this long-standing series since 2009.
It was another long week of questions regarding the offense for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten) despite coming off a hard-fought 10-3 victory at home over the previously undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes. Michigan mustered just 267 total yards in the win and didn’t score a single point in the final 53:33 of the contest. Thankfully for the Wolverines, the defense looked to be its old dominant self again, allowing just 261 total yards to go along with eight sacks, 13 tackles for a loss and three interceptions. Who needs offense when you get that kind of performance from a defense?
As for the Fighting Illini, they (2-3, 0-2) are now in the midst of a three-game losing streak after starting the year 2-0 and now head into their matchup against Michigan with their quarterback situation in flux. Former Michigan QB Brandon Peters suffered an injury last week in the 40-17 blowout loss to Minnesota, and his status remains questionable for this weekend. Bad news when looking to halt a three-game slide against a defense that is rounding into shape as we near the halfway point of the season.
Michigan at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -21.5
When Michigan Has the Ball
Is this another “get right” week for the Wolverines? The Michigan offense looked outstanding against Rutgers (who doesn’t) two weeks ago, but struggled mightily against Iowa.
Starting left tackle Jon Runyan was quick to credit the Hawkeyes defense for last week’s low-scoring output, but he had an excellent observation regarding success in college football in today’s era. “The best teams in the country are out here scoring at least 42 points per game,” Runyan said to the local media earlier this week. And he’s correct. LSU, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia — the top five teams in the country according to the AP — are all averaging more than 42 points per contest in 2019, with three of those teams averaging 50-plus points per game.
Where does Michigan rank? Down at 74th in the country, averaging just 28 points per game (coincidentally right next to their in-state rival Michigan State). With regard to the Big Ten specifically, the Wolverines rank in the bottom half of the conference in all major offensive statistical categories through five games. Perhaps that changes this week against an Illini defense that ranks 12th in the conference, allowing well over 400 yards of offense per game.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Who gets the nod at quarterback when the Illini offense takes the field on Saturday? If Tuesday was any indication, it looks as if redshirt freshman Matt Robinson will get the start against the Wolverines as he was the choice to meet with the media this week, not Brandon Peters. A former Michigan transfer, Peters took a nasty shot last week against Minnesota, forcing him to leave the contest. Head coach Lovie Smith did not offer up any details about Peters’ status after Tuesday’s practice, leading to speculation that it will be Robinson under center come Saturday.
With a first-time starter at quarterback, look for the Illini to lean on their strengths in the ground game with running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, who have combined to average over six yards a carry thus far in 2019. Michigan is trending upwards on defense as a whole but has been vulnerable at times defending the run, allowing 135 yards per game on the ground.
Illinois would have a tough time beating the Wolverines with a fully healthy roster and now will attempt to do so with a redshirt freshman backup making his first career start at quarterback. If the Illini can get the explosive Reggie Corbin back on track after a poor showing last week, maybe there is a sliver of hope. With the way the Michigan defense is performing of late, you probably shouldn't bet on that occurring. The Wolverines will win comfortably on Saturday.
Prediction: Michigan 34, Illinois 10
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.