On Saturday, No. 3 Michigan trailed during the fourth quarter for the first time all season. Down four to a hardy Illinois team with four minutes and change, the Wolverines managed to scrape together two drives into field goal range, eking out a win.
This was Michigan’s first true taste of adversity this season; what, if anything, can we take from it?
First, and most importantly, the Wolverines were able to escape with that win.
Against an Illinois team that had its offense clicking early, that win by no means felt guaranteed. Late in the game, the defense completely locked down when necessary. Gone were the slight lapses in coverage that lead to long completions for Illini quarterback Tommy DeVito, as were the physical and productive runs from running back Chase Brown.
In their place was the second half defense Michigan has been showing off for most of the season. It’s a meat grinder; teams go in, and four plays later, they punt.
After a late 3rd quarter Illini touchdown, the team only gained 46 yards for the rest of the game, most off of a single completion. It was because of the complete lock down of Illinois’ offense that Michigan even had the chance to orchestrate a comeback. After the first field goal that left 2:06 on the clock, one first down would’ve all but ended the game. But even before it happened, it felt like the defense would hold.
The question was whether the offense could do its part.
And however messy it looked, it did. Sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy orchestrated two drives into field goal range, exactly what was needed in order to win.
Over the two drives, McCarthy faced several fourth downs. It was on those plays that the game rested entirely on his shoulders, for the first time in his young career. And McCarthy got it done. Again, there was a lot to nitpick about McCarthy’s game last weekend, and a lot of macro problems as well, but one thing that cannot be criticized is JJ performing when it was needed.
JJ, and the offense as a whole, also got crucial experience. Michigan has not had to come up with a game-winning drive, or significant fourth quarter production with McCarthy at the helm, and knowing what it’s like on the biggest stage could be crucial in the Shoe.
This game started like so many other Michigan games this season. Running back Blake Corum ground down the defense, then exploded for a long carry to give the Wolverines the early lead.
But by the end of the second quarter, the team was in unfamiliar waters. Corum was injured, and Michigan had to make do without him.
The outcomes of the rest of the Wolverines’ drives — FG, downs, punt, FG, FG. Against a stiffer opponent, this simply would not have been enough.
Without Corum, Michigan looked like an entirely different team. Running backs CJ Stokes, and subsequently Isaiah Gash, were able to find some holes, but were ultimately stuffed by the Illini front. They dared McCarthy to throw, and for the most part, that was the right call.
Early in the season, JJ was threading balls through tight coverage, and finding open receivers with ease. He had the highest completion percentage in the FBS through four games. But for some reason, that JJ McCarthy is nowhere to be found.
On Saturday, he looked slightly flustered, especially in the third quarter. He missed a crucial pass high over the middle, and put too much on several other passes as well. On top of that, his progressions were thrown out, and many times he just stared down his first option.
But the problems with the pass game do not solely reside on JJ McCarthy. The receivers also need to make some plays. Andrel Anthony dropped a ball that hit his hands in the end zone, and all game, receivers were not getting separation. Instead, they often relied on superhuman throws hitting their hands through tight coverage, which did not pan out at the rate needed. On top of that, the route combinations don't often seem to work very well and the overall passing scheme just doesn't seem to get guys open.
A lot of these shortcomings can also be traced back to the play-calling. It’s decidedly difficult to adjust an offense when a significant player is injured and keep it running smoothly, but it still feels like there’s some kind of schematic barrier to Michigan’s passing success. Even when Corum was healthy, JJ should have had more interspersed pass plays. And with such a potent run game, the play action should be deadly — why isn’t it?
The Wolverines also have continued their over-reliance on their tight ends. Colston Loveland was great, but it felt like plays were drawn just for him, and McCarthy ignored open downfield targets to get the guaranteed short completion.
Now Michigan has an entire week to iron out these shortcomings. Only it knows if Corum or Edwards will be ready come The Game, but either way, the offense needs to scheme better to play to both McCarthy’s, and the receiver’s strengths.
Otherwise it could be a long day in Columbus come Saturday.