Karan Higdon rushed for 106 yards on eight carries. [Bryan Fuller]
We're running out of nitpicks.
Michigan dominated another overmatched foe, outgaining Illinois 561-172, and in the aftermath there was very little to complain about.
Even the Rutgers game featured a slow start from the offense. That did not happen today, as Jim Harbaugh utilized a dizzying array of formations, personnel, and misdirection to conduct a 10-play, 75-Yard touchdown drive. Jake Butt finished it off with a screamingly open three-yard touchdown out of the now-legendary "Train" pre-snap look.
Wilton Speight had been a culprit in those previous slow starts, and generally shaky over the last few weeks. Today, he was as sharp as he's been all year, connecting on 16-of-23 passes for 253 yards. He was responsible for the first two touchdowns, the short toss to Butt and a play-action strike to Tyrone Wheatley Jr. from 21 yards out. Neither was his best throw of the day; that would be a 30-yard post route to Amara Darboh he fit between multiple defenders. His numbers could've been even better if a couple close-call deep balls had been hauled in.
"I think Wilton Speight may have had one of his best games of the year," said Jim Harbaugh. "Whether we were going into the wind, with the wind. He was throwing that intermediate, deep stuff—those 30-, 40-yard throws—just on the money."
Speight mentioned that he'd spent the bye week poring over film from the first six games in order to correct mistakes. The hard work showed in his play.
Michigan had a surprise reshuffling of the offensive line, replacing Juwann Bushell-Beatty at left tackle with Ben Braden and moving Ben Bredeson into the lineup at left guard. While Braden got beat for a sack—on a play in which Speight was partially culpable for holding onto the ball too long—the pass protection was generally good, and the run game flourished.
Even with ample garbage-time totes by walk-ons, Michigan averaged five yards per non-sack carry. Karan Higdon led the way with 106 yards on only eight carries, including a weaving 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap the day's scoring.
"His acceleration, his vision, everything is improving," Harbaugh said. "When he gets to the second level he's got a really good gear to him."
Michigan only had one sack but Jeff George Jr. was under siege. [Eric Upchurch]
Facing third-string walk-on Jeff George Jr., the defense was nearly as dominant as they were against Rutgers. George went 0-for-7 in the first half with an interception when Dymonte Thomas jumped a screen pass one play after Michigan's first failed offensive drive.
"It's about time," Thomas said. This was his first career interception, and apparently the rest of the defense had been rather critical of his hands.
Malik Turner accounted for 86 yards and a touchdown on two catches, both after the game was well in hand. Those two plays accounted for precisely half of the Illini yardage. Turner capitalized on a mismatch with Ben Gedeon on the first. On the touchdown, Delano Hill misplayed a hopeful heave by George to allow Turner to come down with it.
Even the game's most disappointing drives had positive outcomes. Illinois's first big play, a 45-yard run by Ke'Shawn Vaughn out of the wildcat, ended when Jabrill Peppers sprinted him down from the opposite side of the field. The drive ended with a punt four plays later. On the other side, Michigan had two drives stall in Illinois territory in the third quarter; Kenny Allen salvaged both with 23- and 27-yard field goals, a welcome sight given his recent struggles.
The most significant concerns were injury-related. Chris Evans took a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked him unconscious on his only carry. Harbaugh said after the game that Evans had recovered relatively well by the time he saw him at halftime, but that's obviously something to monitor heading into next week. Khalid Hill went to the locker room after the third quarter and did not return; there wasn't an update on him after the game. Grant Perry sat out the game with what Harbaugh admitted, after some prying, was a disciplinary issue.
Well, there was one other concern. At the end of his presser, Harbaugh asked whether anyone had seen a replay of the late review—on which Harbaugh challenged the spot on a third-down catch with two minutes left, up 41-8. He was outwardly perplexed as to how the officials could get that call wrong. Michigan, of course, managed to overcome this tragic miscarriage of justice by converting the fourth down on a Bobby Henderson dive, then kneeling out the clock.
Now they're on to Michigan State. It's time to right some more wrongs.
"No question about it," Harbaugh said, responding to a question about whether they'd move on quickly to the MSU game. "Big game. Championship game for our team. We celebrate all wins, but we'll get on pretty quickly to our next opponent."