It feels like fate.
Both Ohio State and Michigan are dominating conference opponent after conference opponent, proving they are a cut above the rest of the Big Ten. Both are undefeated, with all of their postseason goals well within reach. It feels almost inevitable that both will arrive at The Game unblemished for the first time since 2006.
On November 26, the Wolverines have a chance to start a streak over their rivals, while the Buckeyes hope to prove that 2021 was a fluke, and that the conference still runs through Columbus.
But before any of that, Michigan must first face Illinois.
As recent as last week, the Illini were a top 25 team. A lackluster game against a struggling Michigan State team definitely soured national opinions on the team, as did the loss to a surging Purdue.
Even with those losses, and without the shiny number next to its name, Illinois is still the same team under the hood that surged to a 7-1 record. Illini coach Bret Bielema has built a solid, balanced offense, led by a stout and physical offensive line.
“They’re a physical group,” freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham said. “I know they’re one of the teams in the Joe Moore semifinals, so it’ll be a good challenge, they’re big physical dudes.”
Starting running back Chase Brown is out, but the Illinois offensive line will make sure the running game is still a threat, and open up the passing game for quarterback Tommy DeVito. What will challenge Michigan more is the Illini defense. They are third in all of college football in total defense, only behind Michigan and Georgia. They have a stout inside run defense, and hope to slow Corum and the Wolverines’ run machine down.
Despite all that, Michigan is far more talented, and more than likely has the ability to beat the Illini defense into submission doing what it does best — running it down the opponent’s throat.
But instead of thinking of this game as a challenge for Michigan to overcome, and simply grinding its way to a win, the Wolverines should think about this game as an opportunity — one last chance to address some of their weaknesses before The Game.
Still, quarterback JJ McCarthy hasn’t had to win a game with his arm. He hasn’t needed to, with running back Blake Corum putting together the season he has so far.
But against Nebraska, McCarthy threw a season low 17 pass attempts. At some point, and more than likely the Saturday after Thanksgiving, McCarthy will be depended on to put points on the board as the run game drops in efficiency, and McCarthy needs to have the confidence that the team trusts him to put the ball into the receivers’ hands.
The Illini present a very solid defense, providing a great litmus test for the Wolverines. They play close man coverage, forcing the opposing quarterback to make quick, decisive decisions into tight windows. Calling more pass plays, and trying to get McCarthy in rhythm early, while likely not critical for the Wolverines this week, can give McCarthy crucial confidence for the remaining must-win games, and increase chemistry with his skill position players.
But McCarthy needs that chance — the offense can’t revert back to having Corum pummel the defense after a singular missed deep ball. Especially if the game gets out of hand, why not give McCarthy and the offense a drive or two to get things going?
This all starts with Michigan’s co-offensive coordinators, Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss. Both have contributed to calling smooth, cohesive games so far. They have kept the run game potent, no matter how the defense lines up against them. But having the passing game gelling can give this team another gear, one that they could need.
Another problem the Wolverines can work to address in this game is starting more quickly. Being a second half team is by no means a bad thing, but having to come back from a second half deficit against Ohio State is an entirely different story than Rutgers.
Last week against Nebraska was a welcome sight, with Michigan clearly ahead at the half, but another week of earning a lead early can only help the team’s confidence.
These adjustments are by no means crucial this week. Michigan will likely beat the Illini whether or not it does any or all of these things.
But when the Wolverines are dragged into deep water in Columbus, these adjustments could be the difference. If Corum and Edwards are nullified, the offense will entirely rest on McCarthy’s shoulders. And being down significantly could spell the end for Michigan’s postseason hopes.
Michigan can be even better — but it will take some experimentation.