When I previewed Illinois in the summer, I said that the Illini would take fairly significant steps back on each side of the ball. With Rashard Mendenhall not longer carrying the rock, Juice Williams's questionable arm would be thrust into the forefront, and J Leman would no longer be the American Hero of the defense. With no Illinois representative available for a podcast interview ([STUDENT PUBLICATION REDACTED] is the only one to deny such a request so far), we haven't been able to get much more updated information on the boys from Champaign than from watching their games ourselves, and from what can be gleaned from the internets.
Illinois currently sits at 2-2, and ironically the Illini have looked more impressive in their losses than their wins. The losses have been competitive battles against a pair of top-10 teams in Missouri and Penn State, while the losses have been against 1-AA Eastern Illinois, where they gave up 21 points, and Louisiana-Lafayette, which came in a 20-17 squeaker. This game is important to Illinois to notch their first Big Ten win and avoid starting conference play in a huge hole.
With the departure of Rashard Mendenhall and continuing emergence of Arrelious Be
nn, most predicted prior to the season that Juice Williams would now be the featured cog in Illinois' offense. Through 4 games last year, he had attempted 79 passes, and this year, he has thrown 116, so yeah. However, 42 of those attempts came in a comeback attempt against Missouri, a game he missed the end of in 2007 with injury. Regardless, the difference is certainly significant. Juice has also been rushing a lot more this year, with 64 attempts through 4 games, compared to 38 in '07. Daniel Dufrene is the starting tailback, but he hasn't been particularly impressive so far, and Juice has been handling the majority of the offense. Illinois' rushing offense has been clicking, and the passing offense is passable. However, quality of competition always comes into play when comparing absolute statistics. The Illini have faced a Missouri team that is all-offense (and has since given up 362 yards to Nevada - presumably after some early season improvem
ents), a pair of tomato cans, and one legit defense in Penn State. It appears as though Rashard Mendenhall was indeed the key to the Illinois offense last year.
How does it all apply directly to this game? Michigan is good at stopping the run, if the Wisconsin game is any indication, but bad if Utah and Notre Dame are your evidence. This blog is a firm believer in a "what have you done for me lately" mentality, and will assume that the Michigan DL has snapped out of its early season funk. However, The Illini won't line up and run straight at Michigan, opting instead to frequently line up in the shotgun and employ the option. Expect to see some of Michigan's more athletic linebackers, like Jonas Mouton, Artis Chambers, and Marell Evans, play a prominent role this week as Michigan tries to force Juice to pass. Through the air, Illinois won't be world-beaters, but Arrelious Benn will certai
nly make a spectacular play or two, especially with master-except-in-every-way-not-a-master of geometry Stevie Brown ready to take a horrible angle from time to time (to his credit, he played very well against Wisconsin), and a couple of suboptimal, but passable tacklers from the corner spots.
Going into their game against Penn State, Black Shoe Diaries noted that the Illini were a moribund 88th in rush defense, despite facing a couple of gimme games (one of which, against Louisiana-Lafayette, turned out to be not such a gimme), and a Missouri team that does most of its damage through the air. Were they able to turn things around against PSU? Not so much. Penn State picked up 241 yards and 2 TDs keeping the ball on the ground, the best performance against Illinois to date on the year. Brit Miller may be a decent player, but American Hero he ain't. Michigan is a team whose offensive line has been good in pass protection, but has had trouble blocking for the run. Facing a bad run defense is a pretty good cure for that (see: Michigan v. Notre Dame. Michigan gained 159 yards on the ground despite playing from a huge deficit the entire game). Expect Michigan to have some success on the ground against the Illini. In the passing game, Illinois is doing pretty well on the strength of cornerback Vontae Davis. The junior doesn't quite shut down his side of the field, but he isn't far off from it. However, it is also important to note that Chase Daniel and Darryl Clark, both operating spread offenses, threw for 323 and 181 yards against the Illini, respectively. If Michigan's execution problems can be hammered out a bit, there should be plays available through the air. Overall on defense, however, expect a few changes. The Illini coaches are not pleased with the players thus far in the season, so it's likely that an athletic linebacker like Martez Wilson may see the bench because he can't bring himself to play disciplined ball. No matter who starts, the Wolverines will either face guys who have been backups thus far this season, or players who the coaches flatly criticized for not being in position.
Arrelious Benn hasn't made any spectacular plays in the kicking game yet this year, but you have to think that's a ticking time bomb waiting to happen, rather than any regression by him. The kicking games have been what you'd expect from a BCS conference team, though Derrick Williams was able to take one to the house against the Illini Saturday night. Michigan fans are to the point where not fumbling gets marked up in the "win" column, so a surprisingly good return game may be in order.
Michigan doesn't have any rusher crack 100 yards, but at least two gain more than 50.
Juice Williams will end the day with one good positive run, but will be sacked at least twice, and gain less than 42 net yards on the ground - thus far his season-low
Michigan beats the Illini, 31-28.