Eyes on the Enemy: Illinois

Football

With a porous secondary on the docket once again this week, the Michigan football team’s trip to Illinois presents yet another opportunity to work through the remaining kinks of the program’s new Pro Spread offense.

Jim Harbaugh may insist the offense is close to ‘hitting its stride,’ but through five games, the 16th-ranked Wolverines have fallen well short of offensive expectations. Michigan (4-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) ranks ninth in the conference in scoring (28 points per game) and 10th in total offense (367 yards per game), despite an offseason of bubbling anticipation around the return of senior quarterback Shea Patterson, a veteran offensive line and an electric receiving corps.

For the Wolverines, this week’s cupcake game comes at an ideal time. Traveling to Illinois (2-3, 0-2), which ranks 12th in the Big Ten in total defense, gives first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and his unit an opportunity to find its footing before a tough two-week swing against Penn State and Notre Dame.

So, how can U-M make the most of this opportunity to get into a rhythm?

Let Shea Patterson sling it

Forget establishing the run. Let this game be an afternoon in the sandbox for Patterson.

Give Patterson the green light to sling it around the field. Let him figure things out firsthand with wide receivers Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. For reference, no Michigan player averages more than 55 receiving yards per game, and no receiver has hauled in more than two touchdowns in the first five games. Peoples-Jones, in particular, has amassed just nine catches for 93 yards and one touchdown in his three appearances since returning from injury — a statline that didn’t seem unreasonable to expect on a weekly basis prior to the season.

If Patterson remains hesitant to take vertical shots against the likes of Penn State and Notre Dame, the Wolverines’ season-long aspirations could be out of reach by the end of October.

Ten of U-M’s 13 drives were held to less than 25 yards in last week’s gritty 10-3 win over the Hawkeyes, seven of which resulted in single-digit yardage outputs. And on the two rare drives that looked promising, Michigan missed a pair of field goals. If there’s a better time for Patterson to get on the same page with his talent wideout trio, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. 

Keep sending the house on defense

There’s no reason to take the foot off the pedal, especially coming off a game that saw the Wolverines record eight sacks — a mark that tied the program record for most in a game over the last 15 seasons. The Fighting Illini offensive line has already allowed 15 sacks, meaning U-M could see more of a turnstile than a wall.

With Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters’ injury status still undetermined, the defensive line will either face a banged-up Peters or a reserve. Peters, who transferred from Michigan at the end of last season, sustained the injury against Minnesota after throwing just 10 passes in last week’s 23-point loss. Redshirt freshman Matt Robinson entered in his place, completing 15-of-29 passing attempts for 125 yards without a touchdown. 

The Wolverines’ defense controlled the run game up front last week, allowing a mere one yard on 30 attempts. U-M’s defensive line seemed to live in the Hawkeyes’ backfield for the majority of the game, overwhelming an offensive line with multiple legitimate NFL prospects. Defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye led a group that tallied 14 tackles for loss last week, while increased quarterback pressure helped Michigan bait Iowa’s Nate Stanley into his first three interceptions of the season.

If the Wolverines can generate the same amount of pressure this week against Illinois’ concerning quarterback situation, they could be looking at a shutout bid late in the second half.

The verdict

It’s not much of a tune-up game when there isn’t a reliable body of work already in place to fine-tune. Michigan has what it takes to run the ball down Illinois’ throat, but that’s not much of a long-term solution with Penn State and Notre Dame looming.

Instead, Gattis’ unit needs to use this week to take a step forward in the passing game by improving the rapport between Patterson and his wideouts. The easiest way to do that is by giving Patterson the green light to sling the ball around the field.

Final score: Michigan: 35, Illinois: 6

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