There were few college football games packed with more action last season than the 2010 Illinois vs. Michigan showdown.
It was a game in which defense was pretty much non-existent and offense flourished. In fact, Michigan's 67-65 triple overtime victory marked the Big Ten all-time record for points in a game, besting the previous record set in 1902 when Michigan beat Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) 119-0.
The two school's basketball teams couldn't even put up that much offense against one another last season. While the football teams combined for 132 points, the basketball teams combined for 106 and 115 in their two games.
The Fighting Illini are on a three game losing streak, after their impressive 6-0 start to the season. Much like their game against Penn State, two weeks ago, this is a crucial game for Illinois if they want to save their season and finish strong.
Here are five keys to the game for the Fighting Illini.
Defense has been one of very few bright notes for the Fighting Illini the past few weeks. They have given up just 247 yards per game over their last three contests.
Against an always dangerous Michigan rushing attack, big plays are inevitable. The key for Illinois' defense is to stay focused following those big plays.
With less than a minute left and trailing 24-16 last week, the Wolverines were set up with a first and goal on the three-yard line. Despite a controversial call, the Hawkeyes were able to hold Michigan four plays in a row to preserve the win.
Illinois needs to show that same resilience on Saturday to limit the Michigan offense.
Running back Jason Ford has really stepped it up the past two games. He had his first 100 yard rushing performance of the season against Penn State when he rushed for exactly 100 yards on 24 carries. The previous week against Purdue, he ran for 83 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown while catching five passes for 69 yards.
Ford may not be the most explosive back in college football, nor is he the biggest home run threat. But he does a good job at grinding it out for tough yardage.
Illinois needs to hand Ford the ball on first down to keep them out of those second down and third down and long situations. Several times against Penn State, Illinois dug themselves a hole on first down which limits their playbook for an already struggling offense.
Michigan has thrown 13 interceptions so far this season. Only six FBS teams have thrown more.
If Illinois can get pressure on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Saturday could really be a big day for the Illini secondary.
The struggling Illini offense has been faced with bad field position for much of the season due to poor special teams play. The defense can really help get the offense rolling if they force a couple of turnovers in Michigan territory. After all, nothing says game changer like a crucial turnover.
Once again, the Fighting Illini were held scoreless in the first half against Penn State. That makes three straight games that Illinois has failed to put any points on the board in the first half.
Illinois had an opportunity to score in the second quarter against Penn State when they had a 3rd-and-2 from the four yard line. A false start set them back and then the placeholder bobbled the snap on the field goal.
They have had numerous offensive drives that stalled in their opponent’s territory over the past few games, including a missed field goal against Penn State that would have tied the game up as time expired.
The Fighting Illini have averaged 312 yards of offense over the past three games but have only averaged 9.3 points per game.
If the Illini are going to come out victorious against the Wolverines, they need to turn those drives into points.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He has 2,497 yards (1617 passing, 880 rushing) of total offense through nine games which is second in the Big Ten. He trails Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson by only 17 yards.
It is irrational to think that a team can completely shut him down, but the Illini have to limit him. Michigan’s offense goes as Robinson goes. When Robinson has big games, the Michigan offense has a big game—it’s as simple as that.
What makes Robinson so dangerous is his ability outside of the pocket. The key is too contain the outside running lanes on designed quarterback runs and scrambles. He has electrifying speed, and once he’s in open field he is very tough to bring down.