The QBs really didn’t have to do much in this game thanks to the play of the RBs. Denard opened up the game red hot going 6-6 through the air. Some of the same bad habits that have gotten him into trouble all season crept back in after the hot start. When pressured, Denard went back to throwing off his back foot and had accuracy issues as a result, as well as several poor decision with the football.
The pass to Koger down the sideline in the 2nd quarter should have been a TD, but it was under thrown, Koger had to wait on the ball, and the defender had time to catch up. There were also several passes that should have been picked off, but were dropped. Ball security was also an issue, as Denard put the ball on the ground several times. Denard did do some nice things in the run game and made better reads on the zone read than he has in recent games.
Devin Gardner played reasonably well in relief action after Denard was knocked out of the game. Unlike Denard, Devin has a knack for throwing on the run as his best two passes came on plays where he left or stepped up in the pocket.
Any questions as to whether Fitz Toussaint’s performance against Purdue was a fluke went out the window after this game. The outstanding vision, burst, agility, and power were all put on display by Fitz against Illinois and they had no answer for it. It’s tough to pick the best run of the night given the number of good ones Fitz reeled off. The final run by Fitz that resulted in his lone TD pretty well summed up his day. Toussaint’s ability to stop, change direction, then start up again is incredible and the burst he shows out of his cuts is something we haven’t seen at Michigan in quite awhile. He did get caught in the open field again, which has happened several times this year. When a guy rushes for 192 yds, it is tough to complain about anything, but in most games you only get so many opportunities to break a big play. You have to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves because there may only be so many. Fitz wasn’t the only back to have a good day though. Stephen Hopkins had a quiet but productive day from the FB position and Mike Shaw continues to do good things with the limited carries he receives.
Michigan only threw the ball 15 times, so the receivers did not get many opportunities to make plays. Junior Hemingway had several very nice catches in a bounce back from the drops of last week. It also was great to see Tay Odoms get back into the mix at receiver. Odoms’ 4 years at Michigan have gone by very quickly, mostly because injuries have cut his seasons short the past 3 seasons. Kevin Koger had a monster game from a blocking standpoint. Koger got out to the 2nd level and crushed Illinois linebackers throughout the gam,e plus made a nice play down the sideline in the first half that would have gone for a TD had the pass been on time.
Any time a RB racks up 192 yds it is the result of a great day for the offensive line. Michigan did pretty much whatever it wanted to do in the run game on Saturday. Michael Schofield had his best day in a Michigan uniform by far. Schofield and David Molk teamed up to crush the interior of the Illinois defensive line allowing Fitz to hit the second level untouched on many plays. While there were some outside runs mixed in, Michigan did most of its damage by running up the middle using the power play and the inside zone from the shotgun. Those plays require a great performance by the 3 interior linemen and that is exactly what Michigan received from Schofield, Molk, and Omameh. The only time the line had problems happened when Michigan entered the red zone and Illinois put more defenders than blockers in the box. Even though Michigan didn’t throw the ball much, the pass protection was surprisingly not at its best. Both Denard and Devin Gardner faced quite a bit of pressure when they dropped back to pass and on rollouts. The offense didn’t throw the ball enough for the pass protection issues to have a major affect on the outcome of the game however.
When you have 3 coaches on staff who specialize with the defensive line there is a certain expectation level that comes along with it. Ever since Terrence Taylor and Alan Branch departed the interior of the Michigan defensive line has failed to play at the level needed to control the outcome of games. Since the San Diego State game the interior of this year’s defensive line has done exactly that. Mike Martin, Will Heininger, and Will Campbell didn’t just maintain their gaps and keep from getting pushed back in this game. All three proactively attacked the Illinois front and dominated them from the opening drive until the last one. The edge play has been off and on this season but not in this game. Ryan Van Bergen, Craig Roh, and freshman Frank Clark all did a great job of collapsing the pocket and keeping Scheelhaase under constant pressure. Van Bergen was the best of the bunch, racking up 2.5 sacks, plus a TFL. The defensive line dominated the game and when that happens it is difficult for any offense to have a good day.
Great defensive line play always helps out the LBs as they get set free to roam around the field and make plays. It has taken him a few weeks to put things together but Desmond Morgan is starting to look like starting Division 1 LB. He is just a true freshman so expectations need to remain realistic but Morgan was an animal on Saturday. Morgan showed the kind of flashes that lead you to think that he has greatness in his future. It’s been the little things that have killed Michigan’s LB core over the past few years. Poor angles, bad drops in coverage, and soft tackles turned a lot of small plays into big ones. It is mind boggling how far away the LB play on Saturday was from the kind of performance Michigan fans got use to seeing. Instead of just dragging defenders down or attempting arm tackles, when this group of LBs show up they do so with bad intentions. Morgan and Jake Ryan both dished out huge hits on Saturday, the kind of hits Michigan’s LB core have not delivered on a regular basis in quite awhile. The importance of those plays cannot be understated. Having a defense that punishes opposing players when they have the ball is an important part of playing great defense.
J.T Floyd has received a lot of flak over the years for his play in coverage. To be blunt he hasn’t been good in man to man situation during his time at Michigan and has often found himself the victim of big play after big play. Floyd looked like a completely different player on Saturday. He wasn’t tentative and most importantly he had the confidence in his own ability to attack the ball instead of letting the ball come to him. Floyd’s interception will likely be the most remembered play from Saturday but his refusal to bite on the double move earlier in the game showed how far he’s truly come as a corner. The J.T Floyd of earlier in the season, or in previous years, would have completely sold out on the stop route and been burned for a big play. Jordan Kovacs just continues to make plays, recording a sack and putting his helmet on the ball to force a fumble in the first half. On top of Floyd, all the corners are starting to break on the ball much faster than they did to start the year. Instead of just being in the vicinity of the receiver the defensive backs are now anticipating and jumping routes plus attacking the ball in the air.
The wind certainly didn’t help matters on Saturday from a special teams standpoint. Will Hagerup had an average day punting the ball, though he did connect on a 44 yd punt that resulted in a fumble. Hagerup has yet to return to the form he displayed at the end of last season when he averaged 41 yds per punt. Brendan Gibbons was 1-2 on FGs missing on a fairly easy kick in the 1st half. Aided by the windy conditions Matt Wile was able to boom the ball into the end zone for 5 touchbacks. Jeremy Gallon was finally able to produce a reasonably long punt return but big plays on special teams continue to be elusive.
Michigan did some nice things from a play calling standpoint on Saturday, but was marred by poor red zone offense. The pass-run ratio was a reverse of last week as Borges gorged himself on the run game and virtually ignored the passing game. Michigan opened the game 6-6 through the air then went on to throw the ball only 9 times the rest of the way. Borges milked the inside zone and the power play as much as humanly possible, which was hard to argue against. In previous games, Borges has gone away from the run game too early or simply failed to keep pounding away at what worked, but refrained from doing that this game. Illinois couldn’t stop the inside zone or the power play and Michigan kept running it, racking up yards in the process. The draw series were a nice change of pace and something that Michigan has sorely needed since Denard rarely scrambles from the pocket.
The struggles in the red zone were inexcusable and would have been a much bigger issue had Illinois actually put up points offensively. Michigan was handed the ball off turnovers twice on the Illinois side of the field in the first half, ending up with a grand total of zero points off of them. Part of the red zone issues are related to how opposing teams line up defensively once the field shrinks. Illinois played with 2 safeties back for much of the game except when Michigan entered the red zone. With 2 deep safeties Michigan enjoyed an even greater number of blockers in the box and easily took advantage. Once Michigan reached the red zone however, Illinois brought the safeties down and running the ball became an issue. It was not by accident that Michigan’s second half TDs came on plays that started from outside the red zone.
One important note offensively relates to the snap count issue that Michigan State exposed and took advantage of earlier in the season. Michigan State keyed off the snap count whenever Center David Molk lowered then lifted his head. Following the Michigan State game the offense adjusted and began using several “dummy” plays pre-snap. Instead of snapping the ball immediately after looking up, Molk now lowers and lifts his head several times before snapping the ball negating the ability of the opposing team from jumping the snap.
I am running out of adjectives to describe what is going on defensively from a coaching standpoint. Whether it is from film study or simply having a natural “feel” for the course of the game Greg Mattison seems to be completely dialed in to what the opposing offense is doing. Mattison dialed up blitz packages that Illinois was never able to adjust to and kept the pressure on all afternoon. Michigan always seemed to slant or blitz directly into the area where Illinois ran the ball which helped account for the 37 yds rushing yards that Illinois ended up with. Mattison got choked up after the game while talking about the defensive performance and it is easy to see why. This defense has come a long way in a very short period of time.
The one area of complaint that continues to be an issue relates to the off coverage that the secondary continues to line up in. Michigan played tighter coverage for much of this game but there were still moments when the defenders had no chance of stopping Illinois first downs simply because of their alignment. Thankfully Illinois QBs did not have a lot of time to connect on first downs and didn’t throw accurate passes even when there was time.
A: Unit played as close to flawless as possible. Unit played well enough to win the game on their own.
B: Unit had a major positive impact on the game but also had several assignment/execution miscues.
C: Unit did not negatively or positively affect the game. Unit made key positive plays along with several errors.
D: Unit made multiple critical errors that could potentially cost the team a win. Unit blew assignments and had poor execution across the board.
F: Play of the unit was bad enough that it could directly cost the team a victory.
Note: Plus and minuses denote degrees of the grade.