The Wolverines had several chances to send last week's game to overtime, but they simply could not convert close to the goal line and walked away with a 24-16 loss, their second setback over the last three games following a 6-0 start. With the loss, Michigan missed a chance to grab a share of the lead in the Big Ten Legends Division with Michigan State. Instead, the Wolverines enter the weekend tied with Iowa in the middle of the pack, at 4-2 in conference play.
"It was disappointing to lose the football game," head coach Brady Hoke said at his weekly press conference. "The thing I will say is our guys played with great effort...We've got to execute better though, and that's the one thing that sticks out."
This week, Hoke's team is back on the road for the final time during the regular season to face an Illinois squad that has been reeling of late. The Fighting Illini enter the game with two weeks of preparation since their 10-7 setback at Penn State on October 29. It marked their third consecutive loss after a 6-0 start to the year, the program's best start since 1951's national championship team went 7-0.
Michigan leads the all-time series with Illinois by a 67-23-2 count, and holds a 33-12-1 edge in Champaign. The Wolverines won last year's meeting, 67-65, in triple-overtime, in a game that saw both teams combine for a Big Ten-record 1,237 total yards.
Trailing by eight deep in their own territory with a little more than two minutes to play against Iowa, the Wolverine offense went to work. They marched down the field 79 yards to set up a 1st-and-goal with 16 seconds to play, only to come up empty on four attempts from the three-yard line. On second down, Junior Hemingway nearly made a spectacular one-handed catch in the back of the end zone, but the play was ruled incomplete and upheld after review. Denard Robinson followed that up with two straight incompletions to end the game.
The Wolverines finished with 323 yards of total offense, marking only the second time in the last five Big Ten games they failed to eclipse 500 total yards. Robinson remains among the nation's truly elite dual-threat quarterbacks, as he leads the Big Ten and ranks 17th nationally in total offense (294.1 ypg). Robinson has thrown for 1,617 yards and 13 touchdowns, although he has also thrown 12 interceptions and is completing just 53.1 percent of his passes. On the ground is where he inflicts most of his damage, as he leads the team with 880 rushing yards (97.8 ypg) and 10 TDs). Robinson has accounted for 23 of the team's 34 touchdowns on the year.
Defensively, UM has made big strides from a year ago. After allowing 35.2 points per game in 2010, Michigan's defense is allowing just 16.38 ppg through nine games in 2011, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation in scoring defense. Takeaways have played a big part in the team's success so far this year. UM has forced 20 turnovers in 2011, already passing its total of 19 a year ago. The Wolverines have forced multiple turnovers in seven of nine games, and their 20 turnovers rank second in the Big Ten and tied for 17th in the country. And when they don't come up with a takeaway, the Wolverines have done a nice job keeping points off the board as they are tied for first nationally in red-zone defense (18-of-28, 64 percent).
For the most part, Michigan did a solid job against Iowa, holding the Hawkeyes to 4-of-12 on third down and 302 total yards for the game. However, the Wolverines weren't able to generate any turnovers, and they allowed Iowa to scored touchdowns on all three of its trips to the red zone. In the fourth quarter, Iowa's Marcus Coker capped an 11-play, 62-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown run to put the Hawkeyes on top 24-9 and take the wind out of Michigan's sails. Junior linebacker Kenny Demens posted another solid game with a team-high 11 tackles in the loss. On the season, he leads the defense with 66 tackles and is the leader of the front-seven. And although the Wolverines have notched 20 takeaways, 14 of those have come on fumble recoveries as not one player has recorded more than one interception. If they are to get back on track with a win this weekend, the Wolverines could certainly use a big play or two against the pass.
Illinois has out-gained each of its last three opponents, but the Illini are winless in those contests thanks in part to a total of eight turnovers. Turnovers once again played a key role in the loss to Penn State, as Illinois turned the ball over four times in a close game, then had a potential game- tying field goal bounce off the right upright as time expired. Still, this is an offense that boasts some playmakers. All-America and Biletnikoff Award candidate A.J. Jenkins leads the Big Ten and ranks in the top-10 nationally in both receiving yards per game (114.4) and receptions per game (7.6). On the season, he has 1,030 yards and seven TDs on 68 catches and has accounted for 56.1 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most in the nation by 10 percent. Jenkins' 133.0 yards per game during conference games is more than 20 yards per game better than his closest competitor (Iowa's Marvin McNutt - 111.2 ypg), and he is tied for second nationally with for plays of over 50 yards.
Getting him the ball is sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who ranks third in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (147.5) and leads the Big Ten in total offense during conference games (265.4), just ahead of Michigan's Denard Robinson (264.2). Scheelhaase has thrown 25 TDs against just six INTs over the last 16 games. And in the backfield, senior running back Jason Ford has 25 career rushing touchdowns, which ties him for second on the UI career list. Ford is coming off his fourth career 100-yard game (100 yards on 24 carries at Penn State). With a balanced run and pass attack, Illinois has been able to keep the chains moving, ranking 17th in the nation in third-down efficiency, converting 65-of-133 (.489) third downs this season.
Meanwhile, the Illinois defense continues to get better as the season progresses. The Illini are allowing 280.1 yards per game to rank sixth nationally in total defense. They also rank in the top-15 nationally in passing defense (177.2, eighth), scoring defense (17.2 ppg, 13th) and rushing defense (102.9 ypg, 15th). The unit continues to lead the Big Ten and rank in the top-10 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. The Illini rank third in the NCAA in sacks (3.4 per game) and sixth in TFL (8.0 per game). That production is largely due to defensive end Whitney Mercilus and bandit Michael Buchanan ranking 1-2 in the Big Ten in sacks with 11.5 and 6.0, respectively.
Mercilus is an All-America candidate and Lombardi Award semifinalist, as he leads the nation in sacks (11.5), sacks per game (1.28) and forced fumbles (six). At linebacker, Jonathan Brown has really come into his own over the last three games, totaling 39 tackles (5.5 TFL), 2.5 sacks, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And while the offense has made a habit of turning the ball over, the defense has been able to mitigate the damage. The Illini defense has allowed just six scores (four TDs and two FGs) following 19 turnovers by the offense this season. In fact, they did not allow any points after those four turnovers against Penn State. Unfortunately, the offense simply did not put enough points on the board.
During his weekly press conference, coach Hoke spoke to the build-up of this week's game, which is much like any other for the Maize and Blue.
"I know it's going to be a sellout, in fact I think they're bringing in extra bleachers," Hoke said. "And it's Michigan. If you're Michigan you're going to get people's best, it's just the way it is. That's a good thing. It'll be fun."