Michigan and Illinois have a rich shared football history. Red Grange inaugurated Memorial Stadium with his six scores against Michigan to lead the Fighting Illini to victory. That win ended a 20-game Michigan unbeaten streak and brought Grange to national prominence. Over the next dozen years, the Illini and the Wolverines played it roughly even. Then the dark days (for the Illini) start. Barring a strange polar shift in the 50’s, Illinois had beaten Michigan just 6 times in 50 seasons prior to the advent of Rich Rodriguez. I’ve been researching the cause for this curse, but can find nothing thus far.
The seasons thus far:
Michigan football has been experiencing a resurgence after the Dick Rod era. It’s instructive to not that the Wolverine roster has more players from Massachusetts (1) than Illinois (0). Perhaps this is part of the reason Rich beggared the Michigan program: an abandonment of traditional recruiting territory in favor of hotbeds like Massachusetts and Nevada. No matter though, these Wolverines were ripping and romping their way through their B1G season until they encountered what had seemed to be a moribund Iowa team. The Hawkeyes rose to the occasion, stifling vaunted Michigan QB Dennard Robinson to the tune of a 46% completion percentage and just 194 yards. Iowa also managed to stuff the Michigan offense late in the 4th quarter, escaping a first down on their own 16 to preserve the victory. The big difference for the Wolverines thus far has been a defense which is at least plausible. Michigan ranks 9th nationally in scoring defense this year with 15.7 points per game. In 2010, they were in the bottom 20 of all FBS teams with 33.8 points per game. Their gaudy number this year is slightly inflated-they’ve surrendered 20 points in total to EMU, San Diego State, Minnesota, and Western Michigan. Not anybody’s idea of a murder’s row, that.
The Fighting Illini football team could be described as living on luck during their six-game winning streak to start the year. Three consecutive wins by three points-an event unprecedented in Illini history. The defense has stepped to the fore, as the offense has slid backwards. The short fields the offense has presented to the defense have led to less scoring than would be expected, but one would expect that it wears on the D to constantly bail out the offense. And then we get to special teams. Two consecutive weeks with blocked punts, two botched field goals last week. These are times that try Illini fans.
The Three Fulcra:
Contain Dennard Robinson: The Illini must replicate Iowa’s effort last week against the Wolverines. Iowa is nobody’s idea of a world beater-a loss to Iowa State, a narrow escape against a weak Pittsburgh team, a loss to Minnesota- but Iowa rose to the challenge against Michigan. How? Pressure, pressure, pressure. Broderick Binns (what an Iowa name!) was in Dennard’s face all day, and it forced a substandard day from the electric sophomore.
Abandon the script: The Illini script plays, as most teams do. The problem is that this script just doesn’t work. We’ve “Whitney”‘d ourselves to 0 points in the first half of each of the last three games. On our first 4 plays of each of those losses, we’ve failed to get a first down and punted each time. Perhaps it’s time to be more reactive than proactive-survey the defense and see what might work, rather than just ram our script down an unwilling and prepared defense’s throat.
Stop screwing up on special teams: Without the screwups on special teams, we’ve probably won at least one and probably two of our last three and would at least be shaping up as a divisional contender. Instead we’ve fumbled and flopped our way out of the race. A win against Michigan and Minnesota could salvage our season. We can do it if we just stop shooting ourselves in the foot!
Vegas has no real consensus on this game-some have UM the favorite, some have UI.
Sagarin has us as two point dogs.
I’m gonna say Illinois 37, Michigan 28.