View from the other side: Michigan at Illinois
Michigan at Illinois
► Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
► TV/radio: ABC/950
► Records: No. 16 Michigan 4-1, 2-1 Big Ten; Illinois 2-3, 0-2
► Line: Michigan by 20
View from the other side
Bob Asmussen covers Illinois football for the Champaign News-Gazette and IlliniHQ.com. He breaks down the Illini for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Illinois game at Memorial Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @BobAsmussen.
► Question: Michigan players have been looking forward to facing their friend, Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters, a grad transfer from Michigan. How likely is it he’ll play and how has he performed this season?
► Asmussen: My guess is he won’t play. I suppose there could be a miracle recovery and he will be able to go. But he took a hard shot against Minnesota, wobbled to the sidelines and did not return. Guys heal at different rates, so I would never say never. But I think you will likely see Matt Robinson at quarterback. Brandon has played well at times. He was really good in the first two wins against lesser teams. He struggled when the competition improved. He is not the dual-threat quarterback this offense favors, so it might be a case of square peg, round hole. I do think he has been good for the quarterback room. He has the respect of the other players and the team. He is well liked as he was at Michigan.
► Question: Illinois is 12th in the Big Ten in total defense and gave up 674 yards to Nebraska and 487 to Minnesota. Can this leaky defense be fixed?
► Asmussen: Yes ... with better players. And more of them. The defense has been hit hard by injuries, starting with the spring swimming accident that likely ended end Bobby Roundtree’s career. He would have been the best player on the defense. A guy with NFL potential who I figured would leave for the pros after 2019. By far, his loss impacted this team the most. Devastating both physically and mentally. Not only a great player, but a tireless worker. When he comes back to the team in any capacity it will be a big deal. The Illini also lost hotshot recruit Marquez Beason, who would have either started at corner or played a ton. He tore his knee up in camp and is lost for the season. The secondary has lost guy after guy to injury. It’s been a real mess. Linebacker has been fairly healthy, but there isn’t a lot of depth there either. Good offenses will be able to exploit Illinois' defense both with runs and passes. Michigan will have a chance to feel better about itself after Saturday. The next game for Illinois is Wisconsin and the Badgers might not have to throw a pass. Being frank, the Illinois defense is in a lot of trouble.
► Question: Presuming Peters can’t go on Saturday, redshirt freshman Matt Robinson has to take over at quarterback to face a Michigan defense that's coming off an eight-sack outing against Iowa, which registered 1 yard rushing. How tough of an assignment is this for Robinson?
► Asmussen: It’s huge. But I don’t think he will let it bother him too much. He played in a high-powered California high school conference and excelled. He told me that he went against a bunch of Power 5 recruits in every game. He is a quiet, confident guy who believes in himself. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said if Robinson was 2 inches taller, every school would have been after him. His height can be a problem if Illinois allows it to be. If he drops back 25 times, a lot of balls will get swatted back at him. More likely, you will see him roll out often with an option to run. That is his strength. He can make the throws too. I won’t be at all surprised if he plays well. He reminds me a lot physically of another smaller California quarterback who played at Illinois: Jason Verduzco. He was one of the best in school history and this guy has a similar skill set.
► Question: Is there a highlight on this Illinois team?
► Asmussen: If you are looking for a player, it is tailback Reggie Corbin. He came out of nowhere last season to become the first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel Leshoure in 2010. He gained 78 yards in the 2017 season. Smith discovered him early last season and got a lot out of him. He has missed some time this year, but has been very good when he plays. Some NFL team is going to take him later in the 2020 draft and be very happy. He played rugby at a high level in high school and I think that is part of the reason for his toughness. And he is low to the ground, making him hard to find. I think it is important that Illinois keeps him busy Saturday. He was helped last season by having a running quarterback, AJ Bush. If Matt Robinson plays like I think he will, it will help Corbin.
► Question: This is Lovie Smith’s fourth season and the Illini are 11-30 overall and 4-25 in the Big Ten. Is Smith’s job in jeopardy?
► Asmussen: Before the season, I would have told you “No way.” Now, I am moving off that a bit toward “Maybe.” Athletic director Josh Whitman doesn’t want to fire him. He was his first hire after he took over the program and has been totally supportive. But the fans and boosters are getting restless. They want more wins. They want a bowl bid. They want the team to be a factor in the Big Ten West. Smith’s buyout after this season is $4 million. That is not an easy number for a struggling program to swallow. Another reason I remain in the maybe camp is Illinois has turned over coaches too often. It’s a cycle it wants to get off of. Firing Lovie would mean starting over. If you told the school right now it can hire Urban Meyer that might change the thinking. But that isn’t going to happen. There isn’t an obvious coach available that fans would be excited about. But they are not happy with the current direction. Lovie can make this all moot by winning two or three more games. Four or five wins total this season, then he will be back. But other than Rutgers, I don’t know when those wins are coming.
Players to watch
► Reggie Corbin, RB: The senior running back enters the Michigan game ranked 16th on the program’s all-time rushing list with 2,068 yards, three yards behind the legendary Red Grange (2,071) for 15th place. Corbin’s 6.59 yards per carry ranks third in the Big Ten and 24th in FBS. Last season, he ranked third in FBS in yards per carry (8.48). He is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (95.5) and became the 18th Illini in program history to gain 2,000 career rushing yards with 134 yards against Nebraska on Sept. 21, his sixth career 100-yard game. That was his second 100-yard rushing game this season — he also had 144 against Eastern Michigan. Corbin had 1,085 rushing yards in 2018, the 13th 1,000-yard rushing season in Illinois history and the first since Mikel Leshoure ran for a program-record 1,697 yards in 2010. During his career, Corbin has averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 290 attempts.
► Oluwole Betiku Jr., DE: The junior defensive end is a graduate transfer from USC and has been an explosive addition to the defensive line. Betiku ranks third in the nation in sacks (1.4 per game) and tackles for loss (2.1 per game) this season. His seven sacks are already more than or equal to Illinois’ season leader in 18 of the last 23 seasons. He had 3.5 sacks at UConn to tie for the fifth-most sacks in a game in Illinois history and marked the first Illini with three-plus sacks in a game since Whitney Mercilus had three at Indiana in 2011.
► Jake Hansen, LB: Hansen, a junior, is the No. 16 graded linebacker in the nation and No. 2 in the Big Ten by Pro Football Focus (81.6). He has helped the Illini make its mark generating turnovers and leads the nation in both forced fumbles (four) and fumbles recovered (three). He also has 39 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and one interception.
Facts and figures
► Portal of potential: Illinois has been a big fan of the transfer portal and used it to supplement its roster. The Illini added seven transfers from Power 5 schools and five played immediately this fall, including former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters. Coach Lovie Smith has welcomed transfers and has had 10 join the team the last two offseasons, with seven eligible to play this season.
Several have factored in immediately: Peters (Michigan), WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC), WR Trevon Sidney (USC), OL Richie Petitbon (Alabama), DL Oluwole Betiku Jr. (USC), and LB Milo Eifler (Washington) have started for the Illini.
► Forcing mistakes: Illinois’ defense has been able to force turnovers and score points this season, which isn’t a great thing for Michigan to hear. The Wolverines have had 14 fumbles, losing seven, and had four interceptions. The Illini rank second in FBS and lead the Big Ten in forced fumbles (nine) and fumbles recovered (eight). The defense also ranks fourth in FBS in defensive touchdowns (two), eighth in turnovers gained (2.4 per game) and 11th in turnover margin (plus-1).
► 10th anniversary: Illinois is 2-8 in the last 10 meetings against Michigan, including wins in 2008 (in Ann Arbor) and 2009 (in Champaign). This will be the 10th anniversary of that last win. The two teams have played once since 2013, a 41-8 Michigan win at Michigan Stadium in 2016. The four-year hiatus from 2012-16 was the longest in the Illinois-Michigan series since 1919. Illinois is 1-16-1 all-time against AP-ranked Michigan teams at Memorial Stadium. Illinois’ only home win against an AP-ranked Michigan team was a 16-6 victory in 1983.