In Saturday’s tale of two halves, the No. 16 Michigan football team found itself on the brink of crisis before pulling away in its 42-25 win over Illinois. The Wolverines (5-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) showcased a full range of the good, the bad and the ugly, but ultimately escaped unscathed.
What, exactly, did we learn in U-M’s part-stellar, part-abysmal performance?
Crisis averted, but second-half effort and execution can’t be overlooked
With a few minutes left in the second quarter, the game looked over. Up 28-0, Michigan’s four-touchdown lead looked like it couldn’t be squandered. Yet by the end of the third quarter, the Fighting Illini had cut the deficit to just three points. In Michigan’s third-quarter effort, or lack thereof, it was out-gained 114-11. For the Wolverines, allowing 25 unanswered points in a game with such a glaring talent discrepancy is inexcusable.
Other Big Ten teams with similar aspirations, namely Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, haven’t let up against lesser opponents this season. Instead, they’ve showcased their ability to play like a well-oiled machine from start to finish, while U-M, on the other hand, has suffered through patches of underwhelming play against such competition.
Saturday’s bleeding eventually stopped, but not before the game’s outcome was legitimately called into question. Such a diversion from the game’s initial trajectory isn’t a product of preparation or skill — rather, it falls on the effort and execution.
Zach Charbonnet hushes concerns over knee, for now
After seeing just 20 total carries in the three games following his 33-carry workload against Army, true freshman running back Zach Charbonnet saw 18 touches against the Illini. He made the most of his increased rushing attempts, gaining 116 yards on the ground and scampering for a seven-yard touchdown in the first half.
With U-M’s offensive line repeatedly clearing the way, Charbonnet spent most of the afternoon dancing in the open field. Jim Harbaugh described him as “limited” in recent weeks, but Saturday’s display of agility and tackle-breaking hushed any doubts about his surgically-repaired knee. With Penn State and Notre Dame next up on the docket, there’s no better time for Michigan to see its frosh tailback return to form.
McGrone, Uche enjoy big days on defense
When the Wolverines needed a big play to permanently end Illinois’ comeback bid, linebacker Cam McGrone delivered. Up 35-25, the redshirt sophomore stripped Fighting Illini quarterback Matt Robinson on the first play of a new drive, giving Michigan the ball on the edge of the red zone. It was the highlight of McGrone’s career-high 11 tackles on the day.
McGrone has dominated since assuming the starting middle linebacker role in Josh Ross’ three-game absence, amassing 18 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries.
While McGrone’s forced fumble might’ve put the game away for good, it was Josh Uche who posted the game’s best performance. After recording just 1.5 tackles for loss over the first five games of the season, the senior linebacker tallied five solo tackles for loss and a trio of sacks against Illinois.