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Michigan Football: An in-Depth Analysis of the Illinois Matchup

Austin FoxCorrespondent IIFebruary 12, 2015

Michigan Football: An in-Depth Analysis of the Illinois Matchup

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    It sure feels good to be a Michigan fan these days. After the absolute demolition of Purdue in West Lafayette, the Wolverines have lowly Illinois coming into the Big House this Saturday, with the Michigan State game just on the horizon.

    With Nebraska's pitiful defensive performance over the weekend, it's hard not to call Michigan the current Big Ten favorite.

    Will this team continue to improve by leaps and bounds against Illinois, just as it has every single week this year?

    Here's an in-depth look at Illinois, with each major aspect of the game analyzed, with which team has the advantage in each department.

Michigan Rush Offense vs. Illinois Rush Defense

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    Michigan got its ground game going in a big way against Purdue. In what was supposed to be a pretty even matchup, this Michigan rushing attack tore up a solid Purdue front seven, rushing for 304 yards and averaging five and a half yards a carry.

    This was against one of the best D-lines in the conference, a line that includes Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston, who form one of the better tackle duos around.

    Denard Robinson didn't have any trouble with the Purdue front, but Fitz Toussaint sure did. He only rushed for 19 yards, and once again was completely nonexistent. The focus against Illinois will be once again to try and get him going.

    It feels like fans have been saying that for weeks now, though. It has to happen before Michigan hits the meat of their Big Ten schedule, and this is the perfect week to do it.

    What was supposed to be a great Illini run defense coming into the year has been less than impressive so far.

    It ranks 39th nationally, which isn't terrible, but is a far cry from last year's final ranking of 26th. The expectations for this rush defense were high because most of the front seven returned intact.

    However, the coaching change and the loss of Vic Koenning must have hurt more than expected. The results under new D-coordinator Tim Banks just haven't been what was anticipated.

    However, there is still plenty of NFL talent in Illinois' front seven, so the potential is certainly there. Michael Buchanan is an absolute freak athletically off the edge, standing 6'6" and weighing 250 pounds. He was a monster last year, and many were surprised he returned for his senior season.

    Buchanan's numbers aren't as impressive as last year's so far, but he does have 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. He is, without a doubt, the player up front Michigan will have to focus on shutting down the most.

    Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster form the Illini's tackle duo, with Tim Kynard at the other end spot. They are a formidable group, but nothing that Michigan has to be too concerned with. Illinois doesn't rotate in too many other linemen, so it will be primarily those four.

    At linebacker, there is no question who the leader and best player of this group is: Jonathan Brown. This kid was an absolute monster last season as only a sophomore. In fact, he finished second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 19.5, behind only teammate Whitney Mercilus.

    Brown is up to his usual ways this season, as he currently ranks fifth in the conference with 6.5 tackles for loss. He also has 2.5 sacks, which is tied for the team lead with Buchanan. Honestly, I'd be very surprised if Brown returns to Champaign next season.

    Next to Brown is senior Ashante Williams, and a very surprising starter, true freshman Mason Monheim. Monheim has played well beyond his years so far, and looks like he could be a real force in the future.

    Illinois will also run out another true freshman at linebacker at times, Mike Svetina, and Houston Bates may see time as well.

    With Michigan's seemingly revived ground game, this Illinois front seven doesn't scare me. Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown jump out at you, but nobody else really does. If Toussaint is able to finally get into a rhythm, it would allow Robinson's carries to be limited.

    This Illini defense does lead the Big Ten in third down defense and in fumbles forced, but I expect Michigan to have its way with them, just as it did with Purdue last week.

    Advantage: Michigan

Michigan Pass Offense vs. Illinois Pass Defense

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    Well, we finally saw what we wanted to see from Denard Robinson in the passing game against Purdue. Sure, he only completed fifty percent of his passes and didn't throw for many yards, but that's not the point.

    The point is that he had ZERO interceptions. Forcing the ball has been a terrible habit for him his entire career, and he showed immense improvement with the football last Saturday.

    So can he duplicate that performance against Illinois? The great Illini pass defense that finished third nationally last season hasn't produced the same results here in 2012.

    Why? Injuries have definitely played a factor, but once again the transition under new D-coordinator Tim Banks hasn't been as smooth as hoped either. Still, there is no excuse for this unit to rank 64th nationally, and third worst in the Big Ten, with the talent they have.

    Let's take a look at some of the success previous opponents have had throwing the ball on Illinois this season:Western Michigan threw for 265 yards against them, Arizona State for 318, Louisiana Tech for 284 and Wisconsin for 254.

    Those aren't exactly powerhouse teams, either.

    Both projected starting safeties, Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, have missed the majority of the year but that's still no excuse. Patrick Nixon-Youman is an experienced veteran filling in, and Earnest Thomas is a budding star as only a redshirt sophomore. Hull has since returned from injury.

    The Illini did lose Tavon Wilson from last year's team at one corner spot, but Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green were supposed to form a solid duo. Hawthorne had a scary moment against Wisconsin when he had to be carted off the field because of injury, and there is no timetable for his return. He was one of the best players on this defense and losing him could be a severe blow.

    Senior Jack Ramsey will see more time at corner, but two youngsters may now see the majority of the snaps. Eaton Spence is only a redshirt freshman that has already played a decent amount, and V'Angelo Bentley is a true freshman that will also see an increased role.

    Honestly, I think Hawthorne's status has a huge impact on which team has the advantage in this matchup. If he plays, it helps the Illini secondary out a lot, but if he doesn't it hurts tremendously.

    Hopefully, Michigan won't have to throw the ball a whole lot. I think we'll see a similar offensive attack to the one we saw against Purdue, in which Michigan grinds it out on the ground and throws sparingly.

    Robinson's seemingly new found mindset with the ball looks like it's here to stay, and because of that I expect this passing game to be clicking when they do attack this demoralized Illini secondary.

    Advantage: Michigan

Illinois Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

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    Even when Illinois' offense has struggled in recent years, it could almost always at least pride itself on running the ball. Well, that's not the case this year.

    They rank an embarrassing 96th nationally and last in the Big Ten. As recently as 2010 they finished second in the conference in rushing and in 2009 they finished first.

    Gone are the likes of Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel LeShoure from this Illini backfield, as none of the current backs even resemble the workhorse style we've become accustomed to seeing in Champaign.

    Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson will see the majority of the carries, but both of their numbers are less than impressive so far. Young is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and Ferguson only 4.1. Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase already has 42 carries himself, but he is barely even averaging two yards a carry.

    Young and Ferguson might not be the problem, though. Yes, they are both very young and inexperienced, but they each look like they have a lot of potential and could actually form a pretty dangerous duo someday. The offensive line is the main reason the Illini can't run the ball.

    To put it into perspective, the offensive line has already given up 20 sacks, which is most in the Big Ten. The next closest team is Nebraska, with only 12.

    Combine that with this rejuvenated, hungry Michigan front seven and it spells disaster. Will Campbell and Quinton Washington are growing up before our eyes, and should have a field day. Frank Clark is an athletic freak off the edge, and should be able to collect a sack or two. Even Craig Roh is having a bigger impact.

    Plus, these Michigan linebackers look like an entirely different unit as well. Jake Ryan appears to becoming one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten, and Demens and Morgan are playing with a completely new attitude.

    Illinois is constantly letting opponents in its backfield as well, as it has already allowed 50 tackles behind its own line of scrimmage; most in the Big Ten. That constantly sets up third and long, and Illinois is only converting 35 percent on third down, second last in the conference.

    I don't think this could be a bigger mismatch. I'd be surprised if Young or Ferguson had any success running the ball, which would spell disaster. Scheelhaase does have the ability to tear up a defense with his legs if he is on his game, but that isn't too likely.

    There just really isn't anyone in this Illini rushing attack to be too concerned with. I expect this Wolverine front seven to take yet another step forward, and continue its path of becoming a great Michigan defense.

    Advantage: Michigan

Illinois Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

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    This just might be the biggest mismatch of the entire game. I expressed concerns in Michigan's secondary last week prior to the Purdue game, but a lot of those fears have disappeared.

    I still don't trust them against solid passing attacks, but in a game like this I have all the confidence in the world in those defensive backs.

    The Illini passing numbers are just downright ugly. Their passing attack ranks 82nd nationally, with Nate Scheelhaase having thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (3). He is completing just under 63 percent of his passes, but most of those are very short throws and screen passes; We won't see many throws downfield.

    If there has been a bright spot in the passing game, its been Ryan Lankford. The junior has finally emerged, and actually has pretty good numbers. Lankford has 25 catches for 362 yards, which equals 14.5 yards per catch. He also already has caught five touchdown passes.

    All of the given stats for Lankford rank in the Top 10 of the Big Ten among qualifying receivers. Behind Lankford, the next two leading pass catchers are both running backs, Young and Ferguson. Obviously, Illinois doesn't have any problem getting those two involved in any way possible.

    The production from the rest of the receivers just hasn't been there, though. Spencer Harris hasn't done a whole lot, and Darius Millines has missed time with injury. His return is a boost, though.

    There has been a true freshman that has stepped up and earned a lot of playing time: Justin Hardee. He already has 10 catches and is averaging 15 yards per catch. With a healthy Millines, though, we probably won't see much of Hardee.

    Illinois has a solid group of tight ends, but for whatever reason doesn't target them much. Jon Davis is a great athlete and has been even lined up in the backfield and handed the ball to at times. He was actually averaging eight yards a carry, but for some reason the coaches stopped doing that.

    Evan Wilson saw plenty of action last year, but only has one catch so far this season. Eddie Viliunas is a senior that will see plenty of time as well.

    I expect nothing but complete domination from this Michigan secondary. With Illinois likely not taking many shots downfield, it will allow Gordon and Kovacs to possibly play closer to the line of scrimmage and help in run support.

    Floyd and Taylor shouldn't have much trouble covering these receivers on their own. Michigan impressively shut down A.J. Jenkins last season, and a guy like Lankford is a far cry from Jenkins.

    This secondary that has picked off four passes in its last two games should collect another one or two. The Illini have thrown nine picks this season, which is second most in the Big Ten (Michigan has thrown the most). In fact, Illinois has turned the ball over 16 times this season, which is the most in the conference.

    The revolving door at quarterback we had seen seems to have slowed down a bit, with Scheelhaase seemingly now the clear starter. We will likely see Reilly O'Toole at some point, though.

    Regardless of who's playing quarterback, this is an inept Illini passing attack that probably won't be able to have any success throwing the ball on Michigan. Once again, I expect a dominant performance by this Wolverine defense.

    Advantage: Michigan

Prediction

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    Beside the UMass game, this is probably Michigan's easiest game of the year. It is a complete mismatch, where Illinois basically doesn't match up well with the Wolverines in any aspect.

    I don't see how the Illini have success moving the ball on this Michigan defense, as they have both a poor rushing and passing attack.

    In the same respect, I don't see this Illinois defense slowing down Michigan's offensive attack. A mediocre rush defense and a poor pass defense certainly is not going to get the job done.

    This game has "blowout" written all over it. A lot of people are wondering if Michigan will get caught looking ahead to Michigan State next week, but with the focus this team has that certainly won't be the case.

    The Wolverines know how important every single Big Ten contest is, and will take care of business in impressive fashion. This team has shown unbelievable improvement each week, and it will continue in a demolition of the Illini.

    Prediction: Michigan, 41   Illinois, 14

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