The Fighting Illini are stuck between a rock and a hard place. After dropping consecutive home games against lesser opponents, Illinois has fallen from in firm control of their own destiny to needing a miracle win at the Big House and Purdue to lose a game against one of the basement dwellers of the Big Ten.
Saturday’s 11:00 AM Central kickoff has a lot at stake for both Jim Harbaugh and Bret Bielema’s squads. Michigan is trying their best to avoid falling victim, looking a week ahead to their matchup vs Ohio State and losing a “trap game” against a suddenly beatdown Illinois team. A loss that would all but keep them out of the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini are trying to keep their heads above water. A loss on Saturday would essentially take them out of contention for the Big Ten West. A situation that nobody would have seen coming, has quickly become reality for the high flying Illini.
How Did We Get Here?
Illinois is a team that is well coached and plays a certain brand of football, “Bielema Ball”, that plays very well in the Big Ten, but leaves little room for error. Their starting 11 on both sides of the ball are very good, well-rounded players. Behind them? A young, raw group of players that lack the experience, and quite frankly lack the talent at this stage in their careers.
The Fighting Illini, with the exception of Josh McCray, had managed to stay healthy all season long until the past few games. Bielema’s team just isn’t deep enough yet to sustain the injuries it has at key positions and still close out games.
Illinois has shot themselves a lot recently and has been unable to capitalize on opportunities to take control of games. Part of that is injuries, some is execution, some has been poor officiating, and some has been a conservative approach that just hasn’t panned out like it did in weeks past. A perfect storm, some might say.
How Can the Fighting Illini Right the Ship?
Up against far and away the best team they will play all season, and in the most hostile environment, the Illini will have to play their best brand of Bielema Ball to date. The Wolverines are built very similar to Illinois is, they’re just deeper with a much higher level of talent overall — defense oriented, heavy lean on run game, and a quarterback that takes care of the football.
Two key positions the Fighting Illini are equal to or possibly even greater at is quarterback and running back. Yes, I believe Chase Brown behind Michigan’s offensive line would be just as, if not more lethal than Blake Corum. When healthy, I would put Illinois’ secondary up against anyone’s in the country. Even now I would venture to say they’re an elite group.
Keys to Victory
- Tommy DeVito will have to have the game of his life. The biggest thing that seems to be coming out of Champaign is DeVito possibly not making the right pre-snap reads leading to running into heavy boxes keyed in on Chase Brown on early downs. The success of the offense, and consequently the team, will depend on the Fighting Illini having success on the early downs. The defense has had their issue, but ultimately they were on the field entirely too much against Purdue. The senior will have to put his team in the best position on every play against the nation’s top defense.
- Chase Brown’s status for Saturday is still up in the air. If he can’t go, Illinois may be in some serious trouble. Brown has been the focal point of the offense and has singlehandedly carried that side of the ball all season. IF he is out the offense will have to switch gears, and put guys like Brian Hightower and Isaiah Williams in the spotlight. If he can go, he will likely need to have the game of his life.
- The Fighting Illini’s calling card all year has been an elite secondary aided by a defensive front that can swallow up the run and put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The secondary has done their best to hold up their end of the bargain, but the front three have left them out to dry. Against a Purdue team that were shut down by Iowa, the “Law Firm” only managed one sack. Something is off, maybe its the lack of depth that has caught up over the course of the season, but they will have to show out in a big way on Saturday if they want to give the team any shot of pulling off the upset.
- Special teams can’t lose the game. Plain and simple. In all three losses this year it could be argued that the punt unit has cost Illinois the football game. I am not just blaming Hugh Robertson for these short kicks, punting/kicking is a full team effort, but he is most certainly going to take a majority of it.
The freshman kicker has had six kicks, two in each loss, that have traveled less than 35 yards and resulted in a score on the ensuing drive for the opposing team. Of those six instances, five punts traveled less than 25 yards or did not go further than the opponent’s 40-yard line. Five of these instances have ended in a touchdown.
Should the defense have held stronger than it did in these situations? Sure, but when the entire premise of your philosophy is to take care of the football and play elite defense, you cannot afford to give teams a short field because your special teams unit can’t figure it out.
Illinois has lost three games by a total of 18 points this year. Their punt unit has directly or indirectly, depending on how you view it, has been responsible for 38 points (five touchdowns, one field goal).
The addition of the Fighting Illini’s 2023 recruit, Declan Duley should remedy this issue next season.
By the Numbers According to ESPN
Illinois – 12.5ppg
Michigan – 11.2ppg
Illinois – 24.7ppg
Michigan – 41.4ppg
Total Yards Against:
Illinois – 246.9ypg
Michigan – 232.8ypg
Total Yards For:
Illinois – 402.2ypg
Michigan – 460.3ypg
Moneyline: Michigan -800
Point Spread: Michigan -18
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