Michigan Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Wolverines' Win vs. Illinois
The 25th-ranked Michigan Wolverines' resounding 45-0 win Saturday over the Illinois Fighting Illini sent a message, loud and clear. Michigan is emerging as one of the Big Ten's elite, despite the fact that the Big Ten is having a "down year."
Michigan used its running game to power it to victory at Michigan Stadium, racking up an impressive 353 yards on the ground.
As usual, quarterback Denard Robinson led Michigan's attack with 128 yards and two touchdowns, but Flint native Thomas Rawls showed that he should be the team's second option when it comes to toting the ball.
Rawls rushed for 90 yards on 10 carries, highlighted by a 63-yard touchdown run down the right sideline that put the lid on Michigan's decisive win. Grand Blanc's Justice Hayes averaged almost seven yards per carry and proved that he could be useful as well.
Fitz Toussaint bounced back Saturday from his lackluster 17-carry, 19-yard performance against Purdue a week ago with 62 yards—but it took 18 carries to do so.
Now at 4-2, Michigan is in position to threaten for a Legends Division crown. Strong defense and a developing offense should be enough for the rest of the league to take Michigan seriously.
Thomas Rawls Needs More Carries
Michigan sophomore Thomas Rawls is the ideal back for the Wolverines offense.
At 5'11", 218 pounds, he's brawny enough to truck defenders without much resistance. He doesn't have the blazing speed like other backs in the Big Ten have, but his strength and willingness to take and give punishment should make him Michigan's obvious choice for No. 1.
The debate grew more intense this week—just who was the right man for the job, Fitz Toussaint or Rawls? After Saturday's 90-yard escapade, it's quite certain that Rawls is the guy.
The Flint native rumbled for a 63-yard touchdown while starters rested in the fourth quarter. However, Illinois still had many of its first-team defenders on the field. Either way, Rawls made sure that he made a statement to match his team's proclamation in Saturday's 45-0 trouncing of Illinois.
Sure, a 63-yard score pads the average, but consider this: Rawls was averaging over four yards per carry prior to his burst. Toussaint averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 18 carries, including a long of 12 yards.
On a related note, Grand Blanc's Justice Hayes showed his speed and craftiness by averaging close to seven yards per carry. Hayes isn't the biggest guy around, but he's shifty and incredibly athletic.
Michigan's coaching staff may have learned that it's time to back away from Toussaint and let the kids from Genesee County handle running duties.
Jake Ryan Is a Monster
What more can be said about Jake Ryan?
The Wolverines linebacker is emerging as one of the top defenders in the Big Ten, and by season's end, he could be recognized as one of the best pass-rushers in the country.
Ryan had a career-high 12 tackles Saturday against Illinois. Illini quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole got acquainted with Ryan...several times.
Ryan was constantly in the backfield, making it awfully difficult for Illinois to establish any type of rhythm on the ground or through the air. He was one of the key factors in Michigan's success against the run—Illinois ran for 105 yards on 37 carries, averaging 2.8 yards per attempt.
Michigan faces in-state rival Michigan State next Saturday. Ryan will likely be asked to contain Spartans star Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 140 yards and a touchdown in a 19-16 double-overtime loss to Iowa this week.
Denard Robinson Just Makes Plays
There really isn't anything more that college football followers could learn about Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson; he's fast and athletically-gifted.
"Shoelace" surpassed the 10,0000 career-yard mark Saturday, and he did so while playing with an injured right pinky finger. Robinson has taken tons of punishment during his collegiate career; that's due to his style of play.
However, after sitting out part of the second quarter, Robinson struck on his first play back with a 49-yard touchdown run that made the Illinois defense look foolish. Juking and jerking, Robinson should have been tackled at least twice. Instead, he weaved through midfield and broke loose on the left sideline.
It was just another day at the office for Robinson on Saturday: 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns to go along with 159 yards and two scores through the air.
Without Scheelhaase, Illinois Is in Trouble
Illinois needs quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who sat out the second half of Saturday's loss to Michigan.
Scheelhaase was on the receiving end of a vicious tackle in the second quarter. It wasn't unsportsmanlike by any means, but Michigan's Jibreel Black could have seriously injured Scheelhaase after falling on him at the end of a 23-yard run.
Illinois' star probably wouldn't have made much of a difference at The Big House, but it's possible that he could have hooked up with Josh Ferguson for a scoring play during his team's 45-0 drubbing in Ann Arbor.
The Illini are absolutely lost without Scheelhaase. Hopefully, he's not seriously injured and returns to the field soon.
Fitz Toussaint Didn't Help His Cause
Saying that a former 1,000-yard rusher isn't the best back on his own team may seem a little harsh.
Fitz Toussaint is a talented athlete, no question there. However, he hasn't proven that he's the best fit for the Wolverines this season. Toussaint has mightily struggled to piece together decent stretches, and Saturday was no different.
The junior rushed for 62 yards in Michigan's 45-0 win over Illinois and scored a touchdown—but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and his average was aided (somewhat) by a 12-yard carry.
Saturday was Toussaint's day to silence doubters; he didn't have a horrible game like he did last week against Purdue, but he didn't shine as brightly as Thomas Rawls.
Michigan Is Minimizing Turnovers
At one point this season, Michigan was dead-last in the Big Ten with a minus-seven turnover ratio.
The Wolverines committed one turnover Saturday against Illinois and committed just one last week against Purdue.
Part of the reason why is that Denard Robinson isn't forcing the ball into impossible-to-hit windows. His four-interception game against Notre Dame certainly didn't help Michigan's average by any means—but Wolverines coach Brady Hoke has talked about "taking care of the ball."
Michigan did that Saturday. However, it's still ranked 11th in the Big Ten at minus-four. But, recent showings have suggested that the Wolverines are over the turnover bug.
Michigan's O-Line Deserves a Lot of Credit
The Wolverines rushed for 353 yards Saturday.
Denard Robinson, Thomas Rawls, Fitz Toussaint and Justice Hayes probably owe the big men up front a nice dinner—you know, just to show how they were grateful for all the gaping canyons to run through.
Taylor Lewan and Ricky Barnum, along with others, helped Michigan rule the line of scrimmage on offense.
And top it all off, the offensive linemen made sure Illinois defenders didn't get opportunities to sack Robinson.
All in day's work. The linemen look like they're starting to become more consistent—and they're doing it with authority.
Michigan Can Compete for a Big Ten Title
After a 2-2 start, doubts of Michigan's potential were frequently thrown around.
Michigan looked as if it would struggle to win seven or so games, but after a pair of impressive Big Ten wins, Michigan looks like the best team in the Big Ten—or a very close second, at least.
Sure, doubters would say that Michigan feasted on an overrated Purdue team and struggling Illinois program. So what.
Wins are wins, and when they come in the Big Ten—despite the fact that the league isn't as strong as usual—they're important and meaningful.
The Wolverines can win the Legends Division.
And they have a realistic shot at landing in the Big Ten title game if they continue to play at their current clip.
This Saturday will be a true test, as Michigan contends with Michigan State, which has won four straight and has one of the premier defenses in the Big Ten.
But we'll get to that later...
Michigan Will Beat Michigan State Next Saturday
Michigan State just isn't the Michigan State that most thought it would be in 2012—Saturday's 19-16 double-overtime loss to Iowa reinforced that point.
The Spartans (4-3) aren't completely out of the mix, but their chances at winning the Legends Division depend greatly on if they can beat Michigan this Saturday.
And they can't.
It's not going to happen.
Michigan has lost four straight to the Spartans. And at the start of this season, it was a given that Michigan State would be the team to be in the Big Ten and notch its fifth consecutive victory over Michigan on Oct. 20.
There is too much on the line for this surging Michigan team to falter against Michigan State. Denard Robinson needs a win—at least one win—over Michigan State, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Wolverines coach Brady Hoke doesn't want a repeat of 2011.
Michigan is on the rise, while Michigan State's bottom looks to be falling from underneath it.
Jeremy Gallon Is Due for a Huge Game
One of these days, Jeremy Gallon will have a 150-yard receiving performance. Denard Robinson doesn't throw enough to really give Gallon a ton of opportunities to do that, but Gallon may not need to be targeted 10 times to reach 150 yards.
Just throw to him about four or five times and see what happens.
Gallon's 71-yard touchdown Saturday against Illinois serves as a reminder at how just elusive Gallon is. He's far too dangerous of a player to fade away or blend into the offense. He's a playmaker.
Getting 150 yards may be a stretch for Gallon, but the point is that he can't be ignored. Robinson has focused on Gallon at times, and that focus adds a great dimension to the Wolverines offense.
Defenders have to worry about Robinson, sure. But they also have to worry about Gallon, especially on screen passes.