Michigan got back on track with a win against Illinois on Saturday. From where I was sitting, they did it by getting back to the basics on offense and with a stingy, no-nonsense defense led by cornerback J.T. Floyd and the defensive line.
Although not in the form of traditional Michigan offenses of the past, which is okay as long as they are moving the ball and scoring points, Michigan was able to score points on an Illini defense which was ranked top-10 in the country coming into the game. Yes, they were helped out by the defense, which stopped the Illinois offense for a number of three-and-outs and gave the Wolverines good field position all day. But that is how it’s supposed to be right? That’s how good teams win games.
I thought the first half was better than the second – not a surprising statement, really, considering that Denard Robinson went out with an injury and Devin Gardner had to come in and finish the game. But the first half was so good because Offensive Coordinator Al Borges finally seemed to realize that the ball needed to get into Denard’s hands for them to have an offense. It was because Denard was primarily in the shotgun with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint next to him that they were able to move the ball so consistently and dominate a good Illinois defense. The Illinois defense had to respect the running ability of both Denard and Toussaint, which opened holes for Toussaint as he ran for a career high 192 yards and a touchdown.
In the second half, Borges seemed to go away from running Denard so much, which I understand if he was starting to get banged up. Since Denard did go out with what looked like a hand injury (which happened on a pass play, not a run), I imagine that Borges was trying to save him somewhat for the remaining two games. Whatever the case, the offense was better when he was in and running the show from the shotgun. Gardner made some nice plays when he came in, but he looked just as inaccurate at times as Denard has been, and he doesn’t present the running threat that Denard does.
I think that it’s only right that I mention the Michigan defense here as well. Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison did a great job of calling a defensive scheme that would confuse Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. I imagine Scheelhaase came to the line to take the snap every play and not having any idea where the defense was going to come from, as Mattison ran a number of zone blitz schemes that made it impossible for Scheelhaase to get a good pre-snap read.
The pressure on the quarterback and running game also helped out the Michigan secondary, as they were able to contain Illinois standout receiver A.J. Jenkins to eight catches for 103 yards, but no touchdowns. Jenkins was the only source of offensive production for the Illini, and while gaining over 100 yards doesn’t sound great, no other Illinois receiver did anything special and the Illinois running game was non-existent as well. I’ll take that all day. Congrats to those guys on D for a job well done.
Going forward, Michigan has two tough games remaining, against Nebraska and Ohio State. However, the silver lining in this is that they are both at the Big House, where Michigan has played tough all year. If the Michigan defense can play like they did this past weekend in those games, I think they have a decent chance of winning those games. Neither Nebraska nor Ohio State have potent offenses. The key will be if Borges handcuffs the Michigan offense by trying to be too cute by running all kinds of “trick” plays and by shuffling Denard in and out of the lineup. If they want to win these games, they are absolutely going to need to keep the ball in Denard’s hands and let him take this offense to the end zone.