'We didn't flinch': Michigan rises above sloppy play to put away Illinois
Champaign, Ill. — This was supposed to be game where Michigan could flex its muscle and — ahem — convincingly and comfortably hit its stride offensively.
And for a while, it looked like just that as the Wolverines built a 28-0 lead at lowly Illinois. But the Illini took advantage of turnovers, defensive penalties and an offensive letdown in the second half, to rejoin the game with considerable momentum and scored 25 unanswered points to pull to 28-25 early in the fourth quarter.
Some games are roller-coasters, and this was one of them, as the Wolverines, by virtue of two critical turnovers forced by the defense and an equally critical fourth-quarter conversion, swung the momentum back their way and finished off the Illini, 42-25, before 37,275 Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“What I do know is they keep fighting,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said, his team now 5-1, 3-1 in the Big Ten. “There was a big momentum swing there. Third quarter, they made some plays and we did turn it over. Our guys rose to the challenge. They were tested mightily, and they did a great job, didn’t flinch, kept playing, kept fighting.”
After Illinois pulled to 28-25, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson on the next drive rushed four yards on fourth-and-2 to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, he connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 5-yard score and a 10-point lead. And that sparked a momentum change. Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson lost four yards on the first play of the next possession and then Cam McGrone forced him to fumble and Jordan Glasgow recovered.
Michigan did not convert that turnover but the Illini gave them another chance on their next drive.
Robinson was sacked and defensive end Mike Danna knocked the ball and Carlo Kemp recovered at the 1-yard line, although Glasgow had a different view.
“I think he rolled on top of an offensive lineman in the end zone, so I think he got a touchdown,” said Glasgow, who tied McGrone for a team-high 11 tackles and also had blocked punt. “I think everyone on the defense would say the same. We got a touchdown anyway, so no harm done.”
Patterson, who threw for three touchdowns, then ran a yard for the game’s final score.
“We made the plays when we had to,” said Patterson, who was 11-of-22 for 194 yards and touchdown passes to tight ends Luke Schoonmaker and Nick Eubanks and Peoples-Jones.
The Wolverines had two 100-yard rushers, as Hassan Haskins had 125 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown, and Zach Charbonnet gained 116 yards on 18 carries and also had a touchdown. Michigan had 489 yards, including 295 rushing. Illinois gained 256 yards and was penalized 10 times for 95 yards. Michigan had seven penalties for 54 yards.
Michigan was without several key players, including big-threat receiver Nico Collins and starting cornerback Lavert Hill, both described by a UM official has having “minor” injuries. Linebacker Josh Ross also missed his third game after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Wisconsin game.
But their absences had nothing to do with Michigan’s continued issues with fumbles. The Wolverines had three fumbles and lost two against the Illinois — they are among the nation’s worst and now have 17 fumbles and nine lost. Charbonnet fumbled in the second quarter and Tru Wilson’s fumble at the start of the fourth set up an Illinois touchdown. Patterson also had a fumble he recovered.
Harbaugh acknowledged yet again that they emphasize ball security constantly.
“The fumbles, our guys didn’t flinch. Saw some real growth in that area,” he said, referencing how the team did flinch after fumbling deep in Wisconsin territory the first series of the game.
“The thing I was proud of as a team, there wasn’t this, ‘Here we go again.’ They rose up and got a few fumbles of our own. There’s a callus that’s been built there and a toughness that’s been borne out of that.”
But no one wants to build a callus from dealing with fumbles, nor does a team want to build a 28-0 lead with 4:33 left in the half against one of the Big Ten’s worst defense and then see it nearly evaporate. With 55 seconds left in the first half, the Wolverines gave up their first touchdown in 10 quarters — since the third quarter of the loss at Wisconsin — when the Illini scored on a 23-yard pass. The Wolverines then scaled back on offense and went conservative, shutting it down in the final seconds to head into halftime.
The Wolverines had 355 yards with 205 rushing, including 108 from Charbonnet who had a 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Haskins had four carries for 68 yards, including a 29-yard score. Patterson was 7-of-12 for 150 yards and two touchdowns, a 25-yard pass to tight end Luke Schoonmaker and a four-yarder to Eubanks, and things looked like they were rolling
It wasn’t a flawless half by a long shot. Besides the Charbonnet, Quinn Nordin missed a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter and is 0-for 3 this season — his first two misses were 50-plus yarders, though.
But it was the third quarter that was puzzling for Michigan. Illinois outgained the Wolverines, 114-11, and after failing to convert on seven third-down attempts, the Illini were 3-of-5.
The Wolverines also had several uncharacteristic penalties on defense. On the drive that Illinois scored to pull to 28-17, Michigan had a defensive substitution penalty, Khaleke Hudson was called for holding on a third-down play when Ambry Thomas had a pass breakup in the end zone, giving Illinois a first down, and Aidan Hutchinson went offside.
“We know we’re never out of the game when we’re leading,” Glasgow said. “As a defense feel we can make plays to help our offense and make plays and help us win. The game got close, and the defense made some great plays late that allowed us to pull away and secure the victory.”
Patterson admitted to some frustration after Illinois scored the 25 points but praised the team’s resolve.
“Anytime you got a lead like that coming out of the second half, you have to be able to keep the foot on the pedal, full throttle,” Patterson said. “Sometimes the game happens like that. We just have to stay within ourselves.”
In the end, though, Harbaugh could only find positives.
“Hard-working 42 points,” he said. “Our team was tested a lot. It was a heck of a challenge. Especially going into the wind was tough throwing the ball. Our running game really rose to the occasion. Shea did a really good job throwing into the wind, against it. There was a lot of big plays, a lot of good plays. A couple fumbles we wouldn’t liked to have seen. Outside of that, I think our offense was playing pretty darn good."