Michigan vs. Illinois preview: Stop the run

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News breaks down Saturday's Michigan-Illinois game at Michigan Stadium (3:30 p.m., BTN/WWJ).


Illini to watch

Dawuane Smoot, DE: The senior shares the Big Ten lead in tackles for loss (2.0 per game), and overall has 30 tackles, 8.0 for loss, one sack, five hurries, two forced fumbles and one safety. Smoot had five tackles, three for loss, one sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries against Rutgers last weekend.

Hardy Nickerson, MLB: The graduate transfer from California is averaging 9.7 tackles to lead the Big Ten and rank 21st nationally. Nickerson has 304 career tackles (58 at Illinois), sixth among active FBS players. His father, former NFL great Hardy Nickerson, is the Illinois defensive coordinator.

Chayce Crouch, QB: It’s unclear whether Wes Lunt, injured Oct. 8, will play. Crouch, a sophomore, has filled in, and had 142 yards passing and 137 rushing against Purdue on Oct. 8 — No. 4 on the game rushing list by an Illinois quarterback. Crouch made his first start last weekend at Rutgers and went 6-for-14 for 92 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 35 yards.

Intangibles

Run along: Illinois has rushed for 543 yards the last two games (271.5 average) and is averaging 189.8 yards overall, sixth in the Big Ten. That’s the Illini’s strength, but the Wolverines are ninth nationally against the run (99.2 yards).

History edge: Illinois is Michigan’s fourth-most common opponent with 94 matchups, and Michigan has won 69. Michigan is 30-10-1 in games at Michigan Stadium and has won four of the last five there.

Turnovers key: Michigan has forced six INTs and four fumbles, while Michigan has four turnovers (two fumbles and two INTs). The Illini has recovered seven fumbles, eighth nationally, and has 13 total takeaways, 28th nationally.

Returning home: This will be Illinois’ second straight road game, while Michigan returns home after a one-game trip. The Wolverines have outscored opponents 222-62 at home and is second nationally in scoring (50).

Hurrah for homecoming: Michigan has won 17 of its last 21, and 41 of its last 48 on Homecoming dating to 1968.

Facts and figures

■ Illinois knows linebackers — Dick Butkus, a two-time All-American, led Illinois to a 1964 Rose Bowl victory; Dana Howard (1994) and Kevin Hardy (1995) won the Butkus Award; Darrick Brownlow (1990), Simeon Rice (1994, 1995) and J Leman (2007) were first-team All-Americans; and NFL legend Ray Nitschke.

■ Jim Harbaugh and Lovie Smith, two former Super Bowl coaches, go against each other as college coaches — the first time two Super Bowl coaches have faced each other in college.

Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot is averaging 2 tackles for a loss.

■ Illinois has lost 14 straight and 23 of its last 24 to Top 25 teams since beating then-No. 1 Ohio State in 2007. Illinois is 3-30-2 against ranked Michigan teams.

■ Illinois has played the 22nd-toughest schedule in the nation based on winning percentage against FBS teams. Illinois’ five FBS opponents are combined 23-10.

■ Five Illinois opponents are ranked in the latest AP Top 25 — No. 3 Michigan, No. 8 Nebraska, No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 20 Western Michigan and No. 22 North Carolina.