The No. 25 Michigan Wolverines (3-2, 1-0) look to remain unbeaten in Big Ten play Saturday when they host Illinois at 3:30 p.m. ET before some 112,000 at the Big House. This will be Michigan's final tuneup before facing in-state rival Michigan State (4-2, 1-1) on October 20.
Illinois (2-4, 0-2) is off to a disappointing start under new head coach Tim Beckman. The Illini have dropped their first two league contests, 35-7 to Penn State and 31-14 at Nebraska. Michigan, despite a rocky start of its own, could win its fourth game in its last five starts.
The Wolverines' improvement has mainly come from their defense, as defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's squad came up with a solid performance in last Saturday's 44-13 win over Purdue. The Wolverines defense also played very well in the 13-6 loss to undefeated Notre Dame two weeks ago.
Quarterback Denard Robinson added a pair of awards (Maxwell, Manning) to his trophy case this week as he continues to carry Michigan's offense on his back. But despite being 23-point favorites, Robinson can't do it alone.
Here are some of the keys to assure the Wolverines of another victory.
Nathan Scheelhaase (2)
Two years ago, Nathan Scheelhaase was touted as one of the next great dual-threat quarterbacks. He had the size (6'2", 190 lbs) and speed (4.53) to go along with the hype. After a productive freshman season in 2010, last season started like more of the same, as Illinois won its first six games.
But the Illini then ran into an angry suspension-ridden Ohio State team. The Buckeyes snatched Illinois from the undefeated ranks 17-7, and the rest was history. Illinois lost its final six regular-season games, averaging just 11 points per game in the process.
It became obvious that Scheelhaase missed running back Mikel Leshoure, who rushed for 1,697 yards in 2010 before moving on to the NFL's Detroit Lions.
This year, Illinois is without receiver A.J. Jenkins, whose 90 receptions have undoubtedly been missed.
Other than the potentially exciting redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson at running back, the Illinois offense isn't nearly as talented as it was in 2010 or 2011.
Adding to the problem was the junior quarterback's bad ankle early this season.
Michigan's defense should be able to control the Illinois attack, but dual-threat quarterbacks have always been a thorn in their side.
So if Scheelhaase can somehow complete a few early passes, he just might spring the speedy (4.41) Ferguson into Michigan's backfield.
For Michigan's defense, looking ahead to the Spartans shouldn't be an option.
Since Brady Hoke took the Michigan job, the Wolverines have featured a three-pronged attack. The offense operated at its best during the second half of 2011, when quarterback Denard Robinson rushed and passed effectively while Fitzgerald Toussaint carried the ball with authority.
Whether it's Fitz or backup tailback Thomas Rawls, Michigan must take some of the pressure away from Denard.
In last year's Michigan-Illinois game at Champaign, it was exactly the opposite. Toussaint was most of the offense, ripping off runs of 65 and 27 yards in a 192-yard performance. Robinson gave way to Devin Gardner at quarterback after suffering a hard hit late in the third quarter. For the game, Robinson tallied 30 yards rushing and 92 passing.
The difference this year, of course, is that Toussaint has yet to find his stride. After missing the Alabama opener, Toussaint has averaged just 42 yards per game.
While it's probably not critical for Michigan to work a tailback into the offense this week, something needs to be done before Sparty comes to town next week.
Craig Roh (88)
As he did a season ago, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was forced to rebuild the defensive line. The success against the running game has been a pleasant surprise, but pressuring the quarterback has not.
So far this season, Michigan has totaled five sacks, most coming on linebacker blitzes.
Defensive end Craig Roh (1.5) and tackle Will Campbell (1.0), account for the entire production by the defensive line.
In 2011, pressuring the passer improved as the season went on. For Michigan to contend for the Legends Division crown, the same must occur this time around.
Jeremy Gallon (10)
Conventional wisdom calls for offensive coordinators to hide their tricks until the last possible moment. Others like to flaunt their treats, causing defensive coaches to prepare for the worst.
In either case, the Wolverines have been quite stingy when it comes to showing their hand on offense. Last year, Michigan featured throw-back screens, along with a novel "diamond" formation where Devin Gardner lined up at quarterback.
Sure, Michigan botched a halfback pass against Notre Dame, but perhaps former high-school quarterback Jeremy Gallon should have thrown the ball instead of Vincent Smith.
Thomas Rawls (38)
While Michigan is throwing in some trick plays, why not toss in some I-formation. Whether it's this weekend or next, the Wolverines might need to protect a lead by moving the chains and controlling the clock.
Before Rich Rodriguez came aboard in 2008, the Wolverines made a living with Power-I football for more than 40 years.
Both Fitz Toussaint and Thomas Rawls make ideal north-and-south backs, while Vincent Smith, Justice Hayes and Dennis Norfleet are excellent change-of-pace scatbacks.
Play-action passes, screens and bootlegs develop nicely out of the I-formation. Smith was especially effective catching screens last season.
It would also be nice to see one of the fullbacks, Joe Kerridge or Stephen Hopkins, carry the ball on occasion. Hopkins, who has been battling a hamstring injury, might be back in the lineup Saturday.
So fasten up your chinstraps and get ready to trade some paint.