Preview and Predictions: Michigan football vs. Illinois




 

With two games left in the regular season, Michigan will host its final game in the Big House on Saturday. The Wolverines will welcome 7-3 Illinois into Michigan Stadium in hopes of keeping their undefeated season alive.

Michigan, 10-0, has been dominant on both sides of the ball for most of the season. The Wolverines have a top-five run offense and the maize and blue have the No. 1 ranked defense in the country.

The Illini have dropped two-straight games against Michigan State and Purdue. But Illinois was on the brink of being a top-10 team in the country a few weeks ago. The Illini are in a four-team tie for first place in the Big Ten West and Illinois needs to win out in hopes of making it to Indianapolis.

Michigan has not played Illinois since 2019 when it won 42-25, but the Wolverines have won the past five meetings between the two schools. Michigan has dominated the series between the two teams. The Wolverines lead the all-time series 71-23-2.

We are going to break down the game and our staff is going to predict the outcome of the game.

By the numbers: Stat comparisons

 

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Scoring offense:

Michigan 5th (41.4 points per game)

Illinois 88th (24.7 points per game)

Scoring defense:

Michigan 1st (11.2 points allowed per game)

Illinois 3rd (12.5 points allowed per game)

Passing offense:

Michigan 95th (208.9 yards per game)

Illinois 86th (218.6 yards per game)

Passing defense:

Michigan 4th (160.1 yards allowed per game)

Illinois 5th (161 yards allowed per game)

Rushing offense:

Michigan 4th (251.4 yards per game)

Illinois 40th (183.6 yards per game)

Rushing defense:

Michigan 1st (72.7 yards allowed per game)

Illinois 6th (85.9 yards allowed per game)

Total offense:

Michigan 24th (460.3 yards per game)

Illinois 59th (402.2 yards per game)

Total defense:

Michigan 1st (232.8 yards allowed per game)

Illinois 2nd (246.9 yards allowed per game)

Illinois offense vs. Michigan defense

 

Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In the past five games, Illinois has averaged scoring 20 points per game. During the first five games of the season, when the Illini were 4-1, Illinois was averaging close to 30 points per game. The Illinois offense hasn't been bad, it has a very strong rushing attack, but the Illini haven't been super stellar lately in scoring points.

Illinois has had issues with Iowa, Michigan State, and Purdue during this second half of the season. Michigan has played both MSU and Iowa and the Wolverines didn't have too many issues with either team. The Hawkeyes tried to make a comeback late, but it appeared that Michigan believed it had the game wrapped up and the coverage was playing soft which allowed Spencer Petras to sling the ball around.

Bret Bielema lost Brandon Peters last year at quarterback, so he went out and grabbed Tommy DeVito, the former Syracuse quarterback, in the transfer portal. DeVito has been very efficient for the Illini this season. He is completing 70% of his passes and averaging 208 yards per game through the air. DeVito has thrown 15 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions.

But what seems to lack for Illinois in the passing game is the downfield throws. DeVito averages throwing the ball 7.3 yards per attempt. For comparison, J.J. McCarthy averages 8.2 yards per attempt. According to Pro Football Focus DeVito has attempted 184 passes between 0-to-9 yards. He has attempted 92 passes of 10-or-more yards downfield and two of his interceptions have come from throwing the ball for 20-or-more yards. The Illini signal-caller is completing 82% of his passes that are nine or fewer yards, 50% that is between 10-to-19, and just 38% of his throws that he attempts that are more than 20-yards down the field. The Illini are ranked 92nd in the country completing passes of 20-plus yards.

But the strong point of the Illinois offense is its run game. Star Chase Brown was injured last week but Bielema told the media that Brown is trending in the right direction to play on Saturday. Brown is second in the country averaging 144 yards on the ground per game and he has rushed for 1,442 yards through 10 games, plus seven scores on the ground. Brown averages a little over five yards per carry and PFF goes into detail on how he gets that many yards.

The left end of the line is the money maker for Brown and the Illini. When Brown runs the ball to the left of the left tackle and tight end he has scored three touchdowns and averages 5.4 yards per carry. He has run to that side 64 times this season which is the most in any direction he has carried the ball. The Illini have gained more first downs, with Brown, in that direction as well. Brown has gained 15 first downs when running to the left end compared to 13 running on the right side of the line. His second favorite direction to carry the ball is the opposite side - the right end. He has carried the ball 58 times for 306 yards.

Illinois doesn't have much depth behind Chase Brown. If the junior is unable to go then the Illini will look at Reggie Love III. He has carried the ball 46 times for 188 yards this season.

The Fighting Illini have three main targets for DeVito in the passing game. Sophomore Isaiah Williams is Illinois' go-to guy catching the ball 64 times for 553 yards (8.6 yards per reception) and he has five touchdowns. Junior Brian Hightower is second on the team with 34 catches for 428 yards and two scores. Lastly, sophomore Pat Bryant should see some targets. Bryant has reeled in 31 catches for 420 yards and two touchdowns.

Illinois is ranked 52nd in the country allowing 18 sacks this season. PFF ranks the Illini's offensive line as the 40th pass-blocking team in the nation with a 70.9 grade. Illinois is also ranked 24th in run blocking by PFF with a 72.8 grade. Michigan has sacked the quarterback 31 times this season and it has the 12th-ranked team in terms of sacks. Mike Morris leads the team with 7.5 sacks.

The Illini have had some issues keeping the ball this season. They have turned the ball over 15 times this season and are ranked 72nd in the country. But the Wolverines have had issues creating turnovers this season. Ranked 102nd in the country, Michigan has forced 11 turnovers.

One area where Michigan should have a significant advantage on defense would be in the red zone. The Wolverines are the 22nd-ranked red zone defense allowing teams to score 76% of the time they reach the red zone. But the Illini have really struggled to score points when they reach the red zone. Illinois has the 107th-ranked red zone offense scoring 77% of the time it reaches inside the 20. To top it off, the Fighting Illini have scored touchdowns 43% of the time in the red zone.

Michigan offense vs. Illinois defense

 

Photo: Isaiah Hole

In the last five games, Michigan has been under 30 points just once - the Wolverines scored 29 against Michigan State. The maize and blue may not pop off the charts with their offense. It can be vanilla and bland, but one thing is for certain, the Michigan offense has been really, really good.

Like DeVito for Illinois, J.J. McCarthy has been really efficient for the Wolverines but Michigan has lacked the deep ball. The sophomore is completing 69% of his passes this season and he is averaging 174 yards per game passing. McCarthy has thrown for 1,744 yards, 14 touchdowns, and two interceptions.

The former five-star prospect has attempted 105 passes between 0-to-9 yards and he has completed 84% of those passes. McCarthy has attempted 40 passes between 10-to-19 yards down the field and is completing 62% of his passes, but when has throws the ball 20-plus yards McCarthy is completing 33% of the passes. He does have nine touchdown passes that are 10-or-more yards down the field.

One area that Illinois could exploit is getting pressure on McCarthy. PFF gives him a 46.4 passing grade when he is under pressure. He has completed just 48% of his passes, but the good news is McCarthy has not thrown an interception when facing pressure.

The Wolverines have one of the most feared rushing attacks in football. Blake Corum is a Heisman contender and he is second in the nation with 17 rushing scores. Corum is averaging nearly six yards per carry and he averages 134.9 yards per game on the ground. Illinois will not only have to worry about Corum but Michigan has a sophomore back that is pretty dang good too. If Donovan Edwards is a go on Saturday, he only carried the ball a couple of times last week, he adds a whole new element. Edwards averages 6.7 yards per carry and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Going back to Corum, he can gain yards going in any direction, but he has thrived rushing the ball to the left of the tight end. Corum averages eight yards per carry when he runs in that direction and he has scored five times. When he runs to the left of the left tackle and between the center and right guard, he is averaging 6.8 yards a carry.

Both starting edge defenders for Illinois have an average grade defending the run from PFF. Seth Coleman has a 73.2 grade and Gabe Jacas has a 72.8 grade. Look for the Wolverines to test those edge defenders on Saturday with Corum.

Michigan was without tight end Luke Schoonmaker last game, but the hope is he is back for Illinois this weekend. He has been a safety blanket for McCarthy catching 30 balls for 315 yards and two scores. Senior Ronnie Bell leads the team with 45 receptions for 597 yards and two scores.

The Illini will want to look out for those two players, but Illinois took a hit in its secondary. Starting corner, Tahveon Nicholson was lost for the season last weekend after sustaining an injury and the Illini are thin at corner depth. Illinois will trot out its top two defensive backs against Michigan, Devon Witherspoon (91.6 coverage grade) and Sydney Brown (83.8 coverage grade), but things may be dicey for Illinois after that.

The Illini have intercepted the ball 17 times this season. Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith lead the team with four each. Something that Michigan will want to watch out for. Illinois has the ability to get its hands on the football.

Staff predictions

Wolverines Wire staff writers Isaiah Hole and Trent Knoop share their thoughts on the game, two soft predictions, one bold prediction and the final score.

Isaiah Hole:

Make no mistake, this will be a challenge for Michigan. If Chase Brown plays, he will be, by far, the best back that the Wolverines have seen (and are likely to see) this year. Tommy DeVito has been very, very good for the Illini, as well, and at times, the playcalling has been quite creative for Bret Bielema's team. The defense as a whole is solid, while the run defense is among the best in the country, as well. Basically, this is a mini-Michigan in a lot of ways.

However, Illinois if far from perfect. It's lost to two teams Michigan has beaten handily - Indiana and MSU - while also having lost to Purdue. Purdue, a team that cannot run the ball generally, ran for 142 yards against the Illini. Thrice we've seen teams have success on the ground.

Michigan will certainly test to see if it can keep to its usual formula of winning and see if that still works. If it doesn't, it will have to rely on J.J. McCarthy's arm, something it hasn't done since Week 6 at Indiana. The subplot is whether or not Michigan will work in some concepts for Ohio State to think about next week, or if it will keep things extremely vanilla in order to flat out confuse the Buckeyes.

Either way, Michigan is a better team, has more talent, and is unlikely to be looking ahead, unlike most of us who are either in the fan base or the media. This one won't be as tough as some anticipate.

-Soft predictions

  • Michigan manages to rush for 200-plus yards, while…

  • J.J. McCarthy passes for over 200 yards

-Bold prediction

  • Michigan holds Illinois to a season-low offensively

Final score prediction

  • Michigan 30, Illinois 17

Trent Knoop:

I look for Michigan to win this game regardless if Chase Brown plays or not, but obviously if one of the best backs plays it makes the game more challenging. The Wolverines have been stout against the run, which is why they are the best against the run, but Michigan hasn't faced a running back as skilled as Brown is. The key for Michigan is to slow him down and force Illinois into some tough third downs where Tommy DeVito has to throw the ball.

I want to see the Michigan offense continue doing what its been doing. The Illini have one of the best run defenses and if Blake Corum can dominate against Illinois, then the Wolverines should feel good about running on about anyone in the country. The Fighting Illini do not have stars like Michigan or Ohio State, but they do play stingy defense and are good at it.

The bottom line for me, Illinois hasn't played anyone that has more talent than Michigan. The Illini are currently struggling to keep pace in the Big Ten West and the Wolverines have dominated everyone they faced in that division, I just don't see Saturday being much different.

-Soft predictions

  • Blake Corum rushes for 120 yards or more

  • J.J. McCarthy throws two touchdown passes

-Bold prediction

  • Assuming he plays, Chase Brown is held to under 75 yards rushing

Final score prediction

  • Michigan 31, Illinois 10

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire

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