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Preview: Illinois 2016


WHAT Illinois at Michigan
WHERE Michigan Stadium
Ann Arbor, MI
WHEN 3:30 Eastern
October 22nd, 2016
THE LINE Michigan –38.5
TICKETS From $82
WEATHER sunny, around 50
0% chance of rain
somewhat windy
Many numbers herein courtesy Pro Football Focus.


Illinois has a relatively legit coach in Lovie Smith, formerly of the Bears, but is still digging out from the demise of the Beck Man era and the brief Bill Cubit tenure that followed. The results have not been pretty. Rutgers, who you may remember cowering in fear for three hours two weeks ago, just outgained Illinois in a 24-7 UI win.

Add "approximately as good as Rutgers" to "probably playing a third string quarterback" and you get the above spread, which is truly massive. Juice Williams and Greg Robinson aren't walking through that door.

Run Offense vs Illinois

Sep 6, 2014; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Jarrod Clements (99) blocks a pass in the game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Memorial Stadium.  Illinois beat Western Kentucky 42-34. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports


Illinois enters with some quality pass rushers... and one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. They're #122 in S&P+ after five straight weeks in which they gave up 200 rushing yards. (UNC was technically at 197, but remove sacks and they're at 204.) The two most recent of those weeks were games against Purdue and Rutgers.

Purdue. And Rutgers.

This has been a holistic collapse. Illinois is tied for 110th in 30+ yard rushes ceded with 7; per S&P they're in the bottom third of the country in adjusted line yards and dismal in run success rate. On the other hand, they have a ton of TFLs. DE Carroll Phillips has 11, but when he's not beating a guy he's losing in a blowout. It's quite a trick to be on pace for nearly 20 TFLs and end up slightly negative to PFF; Phillips has pulled this off. Ace on the Illinois DL:

Smoot is a problem. DTs Rob Bain and Jamal Milan both stood out to me as strong run defenders—I clipped a nice run stuff from Milan and was tempted to add another to the video pile before realizing he isn't in the starting lineup. SDE Gimel President, an Auburn grad transfer, has the size and strength to allow Smoot to move to the weak side. WDE Carroll Phillips is more in the Winovich mold; he provides decent pass-rush, too, though he's more susceptible to getting pushed off the line—his presence forces Smoot to play SDE. Freshman DT Kenyon Jackson looks like a freshman for the most part, but did have a couple nice plays in this game.

Illinois will blitz, stunt, and twist all day to cover up for mediocre nose tackle Chunky Clements, who is a name All-American and iffy run defender. Sometimes they'll slice past Michigan opposition for a TFL. When that doesn't happen Michigan will rip off chunks of yards. Illinois's defensive strategy appears to be "do anything to get the opposition in a passing down," and they will win on that from time to time.

If Illinois is hitting early this could be more of a frustrating slog than you would anticipate given their numbers to date; it is deeply unlikely they can go a full game without cracking and giving Michigan some huge chunk runs. This goes double if Michigan continues to work Jabrill Peppers and his Pepcat package into the gameplan.

KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN RUNNING BACKS versus UNEXPECTED CUTBACK LANES AS ILLINOIS GETS AGGRESSIVE. They're going to be there; the Illinois DL is very much a roar-into-a-gap kind of outfit. Isaac's been doing a great job finding the little creases; he could be in for a big game.


Pass Offense vs Illinois

Illinois Fighting Illini defensive end Dawuane Smoot (91) reacts after sacking Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (4) for a 15-yard loss in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Champaign, Ill. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

Smoot will be the best DE M has faced this year

Star UI DE Dawuane Smoot versus Juwann Bushell-Beatty is the biggest advantage Illinois has in this game. Smoot is an explosive pass rusher with first-round NFL upside; Bushell-Beatty got beat clean twice in just 15 pass pro snaps against Rutgers. While Smoot only has one sack on the season PFF has him as double-digit positive rusher; file him under Frank Clark DE-whose-stats-don't-match-his-production. Illinois will almost certainly go after JBB with Smoot. I concur with Ace: we're going to get a very clear picture of Bushell-Beatty's ability in this game. My guess it's it's not a pretty one.

Michigan will do what they can to help out with TEs and running backs; Illinois is loathe to blitz because their back seven is extremely shaky. Nobody has a meaningfully positive coverage number from PFF and several players are significantly in the red. Despite this, Nebraska found wide open spaces in the screen game:

The linebackers and safeties combined to make the screen game very, very successful. I've already embedded a video of a slip screen at the top and a screencap of a bubble. Here are two more—another slip screen and a RB swing that caught Nickerson entirely off guard:

Nebraska also had an easy 11 yard pickup on a jet sweep. The edges are there for the taking.

Just about any misdirection makes this defense fall over. Harbaugh has been known to be slightly tricky in his time.

Passing downs are going to be difficult for Michigan since Speight's been a bit off and they can't rely on their pass protection; Michigan will have opportunity to hit big plays on standard downs as Illinois gets lost. Michigan should hit Butt for several play action strikes over the deep middle, and one dollar they run the ol' two-fake-screens play for a goodly chunk of yards.

Illinois is good enough to bust up several drives with good play from their DL, which features a bunch of different plus pass rushers in addition to Smoot. They're bad enough for Michigan to have a few touchdowns on three-play, 75-yard drives where it goes chunk-chunk-endzone.

KEY MATCHUP: SMOOT vs BUSHELL-BEATTY. Smoot could keep 'em in it for a while.

Run Defense vs Illinois


Foster can play some, but it won't matter.

I managed to cough up some paragraphs last week about how the Illinois offense was going to perish spectacularly at the hands of the Michigan defense; you can take those and apply them to this week as well. That's mostly because of the passing game matchup; the Illinois run game has actually been terrific aside from a 15-carry, three-yard performance against... uh... Western Michigan.  In all other games they've cracked 5 YPC without bothering to adjust for sacks.

Unfortunately, most of those games have been against tomato cans. Blowing Purdue and Rutgers up on the ground is progress of a sort, but not the sort that figures to have much influence on Saturday's game. 182 yards and 5 YPC against UNC is quality, and almost 6 YPC against Nebraska is also solid, but that's on just 21 carries. Illinois ripped off a few big chunks—two runs went for half their yards—and then continually put themselves in third and long.

Illinois has not been Rutgers bad so far, but their OL has only one guy even slightly positive on the ground and an enormous hole at guard named Gabe Megginson. Meggison has a whopping –22.6 from PFF, with slightly under half of that on the ground.

A couple things to watch for:

  • How does Michigan do against TE Tyler White? White is the best run blocker UI has at +6 to PFF.
  • How does the linebacker level do with RBs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin? Both are also posting excellent PFF numbers. Michigan mostly contained Saquon Barkley; these guys will also be tests.

Other than that it'll be another overwhelmed OL and TFL fiesta for Michigan. I keep writing this same section over and over.

KEY MATCHUP: MICHIGAN versus BUSTS. That's how Rutgers Illinois gets yards.

Pass Defense vs Illinois

Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Malik Turner (11) gets a block from wide receiver Desmond Cain (86) to gain 7 yards on a catch against Nebraska in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Champaign, Ill. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

Malik Turner is an All Big Ten WR

The vibe coming from close observers of the Illinois program is that the Illini aren't going to risk playing Wes Lunt or Chayce Crouch, both of whom are nursing injuries, in a game they have almost no chance to win. (FWIW, Lunt did return to practice a couple days ago.) The man with the golden ticket and hopefully a flak jacket is Jeff George Jr., a two-star grayshirt redshirt freshman with zero passes to his famous name. Unless this is the most spectacular rope-a-dope in college football history, he is going to perish. And it probably won't matter if either guy in front of him on the depth chart is available; both guys are significantly negative as passers, with Lunt –5.0. Crouch is a dual threat who I'd rather see for more OSU prep.

Illinois isn't absolutely horrendous in all available categories a la Rutgers. They're not good at anything, either. They're below average in every S&P+ category; they're 70th in adjusted sack rate, with Megginson again the biggest black hole. Expect similar rampant pressure in the backfield and several sacks, along with hopeless balls up for grabs. The Illinois OL is better than Rutgers by some distance per PFF, but they have not faced a DL of Michigan's caliber or anywhere near it. This should be a rude awakening.

Illinois does have a top-notch receiver in Malik Turner, who's the target of over a third of the Illini's passes and is catching 62% of those targets. 8.5 YPT is a very respectable number. Turner is a contested-ball receiver who doesn't get a ton of separation but offers a big catching radius and soft hands:

Malik Turner had a tough time getting separation against Nebraska corner Josh Kalu, who's been excellent when I've watched him this year. Against other defensive backs, however, he found room to operate. Turner isn't the quickest or fastest receiver, but he's got a big frame and good route-running skills:

If the Illini need to go downfield, Turner is almost always the primary target. He's grading out at an impressive +10.3 on PFF; no other Illinois receiver to get serious playing time has a positive grade. He can make contested catches, something he'll probably have to do against Michigan's corners, who are better than Kalu and a whole lot better than Nebraska's non-Kalu corners.

The rest of Illinois's WRs are grading out poorly and will mostly be an option if they pop open because Michigan overplays a zone.

KEY MATCHUP: JEFF GEORGE JR versus NOT IN THE FACE. Sorry man. It's going in the face.

Special Teams

Illini P Ryan Frain missed a  couple games to start the season; over the last three games he's punted 15 times, with seven of those returned for ten yards an attempt. This was a theme last year as well; 25 of his 61 non-touchbacks were returned for an average of 12 yards an attempt and a TD. Peppers will get several opportunities to add to his highlight reel.

Kicker Chase McLaughlin is in his first season; he's 9/12 on mostly short field goals. S&P+ ranks him about average. Neither McLaughlin or Frain is very good at getting the ball into the endzone on kickoffs.

Illinois hasn't done much of anything on returns.

Michigan has kicker problems that their touchdown-scoring ways have pushed to the background the past couple weeks; reports have it that Quinn Nordin is ready to give it a crack if Michigan should need to call upon someone to put the ball through the uprights, ahh.

Also they have Peppers.



Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

  • Illinois is getting a healthy TFL diet against some confused OL.
  • Michigan lines up for a field goal.
  • Jeff George Jr is secretly Jeff George's clone?

Cackle with knowing glee if...

  • Paging Mr. Peppers to aisle Line Drive Punt.
  • A Michigan back breaks through to the second level.
  • Michigan gets through another three quarters without giving up a first down.

Fear/Paranoia Level: 1 (Baseline 5; –1 for First String QB Probably Out, –1 for Second String QB Probably Out, –1 for Third String QB Is A Redshirt Freshman Walk-on, +1 for Smoot Versus JBB Does Give One The Heebie Jeebies, –1 for National Worst Run Defense, Meet Michigan's Hydraback, –1 for This Team Is About As Good As Rutgers.)

Desperate need to win level: 10 (Baseline 5; +1 for Some Stakes On This Season Yessir, +1 for Losing To 30 Point Underdogs Is Generally Bad For My Sanity, +1 for This Team Is About As Good As Rutgers, +1 for Let's Pad That Winning Percentage Lead Some More, +1 for You Wouldn't Want To Disappoint The Alumni Cheerleaders, Would You?)

Loss will cause me to... pine for Tate Forcier, who would not let such a thing happen.

Win will cause me to... eagerly anticipate the Vegas spread for MSU.

The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

Michigan wins by a lot, but not as much as they did against Rutgers.

Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

  • Michigan runs for 300 yards with two different backs going over 100. Peppers gets another half-dozen QB snaps.
  • Illinois plays a converted WR at QB at some point in the second half.
  • Michigan, 47-0

This post first appeared on Mgoblog, please read the originial post: here

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Preview: Illinois 2016


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