Eleven (Michigan 19, Illinois 17)

Jake Moody, for the win.

Photo: Zoey Holmstrom

So, that was interesting. Or not. I don't know...call it whatever it felt like to you. 

Either way, it's win number eleven and that's not nothing.

The game before "The Game" can sometimes leave us with questions, doubt and uncertainty. Was Michigan looking ahead? Was the weather a factor? Were they holding things back offensively? Did missing some key players impact the game? Is Illinois that good?

If we're being honest, I think it's a combination of all those things. Undoubtedly, yes, Illinois is that good. Their season started out great but has since taken a turn in the last few weeks, which can happen when a team plays inconsistently. Still, Illinois came into the Big House with the #2 overall defense in the country and the nation's leading rusher...and played like it. They hung it all out there, to their credit.

The only thing that gave my solace on Saturday was how poorly so many other top-ranked teams looked, including the Buckeyes. I was very appreciative of that!

Check out our complete photo album from Saturday against Illinois

For most of the day Saturday, it felt like Michigan was playing itself. Say whatever you want about Big Ten west teams or Bret Beilema, but it looks like he might be able to give the Illini program an actual pulse for the first time in a long time...and it looks and smells a lot like what Harbaugh has built in Ann Arbor. Illinois is not on Michigan's 2023 schedule, and for that, I am thankful.

The capital W worst moment of the season so far was when Blake Corum went down with a knee injury late in the 2nd quarter. Even still, he had already gained 103 yards on the ground and a touchdown on the opening drive...giving him 8-straight games over 100 yards and at least 1 touchdown in every game this season. Great to see him walk off on his own and come back in, albeit briefly in the 3rd quarter. Clearly he was hobbled, but it's been reported there was no structural damage, so hopefully it's just a bone bruise.

As is the case with a number of sidelined Wolverines from this game...Luke Schoonmaker, Trevor Keegan, AJ Henning, Donovan Edwards...I imagine it'll take a lot more to keep those guys off the field this Saturday.

But yeah, I don't know...it was a weird game. Had Michigan lost it really wouldn't have changed things. They'd still be playing for the Big Ten title game berth in Columbus this week...which still leaves everything on the table in terms of playoff chances, etc. So it's not like this was a must-win, which could lead to speculation that maybe Michigan was looking past the Illini – which is perfectly reasonable, I suppose. If the main goal is to rest some injured players, stay sharp and obviously win...well, I guess Michigan was able to do two of those things...sorta.

It wasn't pretty. Michigan's much-criticised passing game didn't do itself any favors. Errant throws, dropped balls...overall it was just a mess. Credit Illinois, their defense is legit, but there were some wide open balls that failed to get caught for multiple reasons. Catch a couple of these balls and Michigan probably walks away with a 2-score win. In a season when the passing game has been mediocre at best, this game was an outlier and not in a good way. Michigan has been frustratingly one-dimensional against most of their opponents, with great success. That probably can't happen this week and against whatever remains on their 2022 schedule.

Speaking of the running game, it disappeared in the second half, netting just 2.4 yards per carry after going 5.9 yards per carry in the first half. It was...not good. CJ Stokes and Isaiah Gash were no replacement for Corum and Edwards. Safe to say, Michigan's success on the ground hinges on the health of those two backs.

Defensively, Michigan did what they had to do. Illinois has 5 of their 12 drives end in 3-and-outs and 2 10-play drives end with failed 4th down conversions. The Wolverines had no sacks and only 1 tackle for loss, which is very out of character. Michigan gave up more yards/points/first downs/TOP than normal. The third quarter, usually when Michigan's defense plays it's best, is when they gave up 2 touchdowns, 8 first downs on 16 plays and allowed 8.3 yards per play.

Seriously, Illinois was Michigan in the 3rd quarter.

Michigan's special teams, thankfully, were able to provide a spark. With AJ Henning out, Ronnie Bell was back to returning punts. His 40-yard return at the beginning of the 4th quarter flipped the field when Michigan's offense desperately needed that to happen. And it was Jake Moody's 4 field goals in the second half, in tough conditions, that proved to be just enough to eek out a win. I can't believe his 35 yarder to win the game was the first game-winning FG of his career. That kick will certainly cement his already strong legacy as one of greatest kickers in Michigan football history without a doubt.

Overall, it was just a tough day for Michigan's offense. Cold and windy, Corum injured, an annoyingly good opponent the week before a huge game, multiple offensive players not out there...it was a perfect storm. But a win is a win. Take it and move on. Michigan 11-0 for the first time since 2006 and only the 3rd time in my 42 years on this planet.

But it's all hands on deck now, man. This is it. Everything is on the line.

It's here. 

The Game.

For pretty much 20 years, Ohio State has carried the banner nationally for the Big Ten conference. And they've done so strictly because of their success in this game. Beat your biggest rival, and success will follow. We see it time and time again in this sport. Under Jim Tressel, Ohio State embraced what they're best at...being a high-powered, dynamic offense with athletes all over the field who can make big plays. Under Tressel and Meyer and now Day, they've fully embraced their true identity.

After the disastrous 2020 Covid season, Jim Harbaugh, facing a do or die situation, went all in on becoming the exact antithesis of what Ohio State is. You're not going to out-athlete Ohio State, at least not overnight, but you can create an identity of being tougher and more physical. Michigan has always built championship teams on the backs of great O-lines, great running backs and great defenses. It's what they're best at. Ohio State wants to throw the ball all over the field. Fine, Michigan wants to grind you into a fine powder with 8-minute drives and 5 yards per carry. It's a brutal way to lose a football game...watching your defense get pounded while all of your 5-star athletes are sitting on the bench.

At its core, football is a game won by the team that controls the line of scrimmage. Crazy stuff can happen, but that is one of the fundamental truths of football. Bret Beilema knew that at Wisconsin, and he obviously knows that at Illinois.

Can Michigan beat Ohio State? Absolutely. Fundamentally, both Michigan and Ohio State remain pretty much unchanged from a year ago. I'd say both defenses have improved, which I think will lead to a lower scoring game than we saw in 2021. At the time of posting this, Ohio State is favored by a touchdown...which is pretty much what the spread was last season.

While there are many similarities to last year, this game feels closer to me like the 2006 matchup. There's more on the line than there was a year ago. For Michigan, a win will signal a new era, and truly shift the balance of power in the Big Ten. It's one thing to get your first win in the rivalry, at home, in 9 years or whatever...but to do it two years in a row, in a stadium you haven't won since 2000...that'll change things. That's a dethronement. That will fundamentally change the whole feeling around this rivalry.

Another Michigan loss, well, will be another Michigan loss. It will reaffirm Ohio State's position atop the Big Ten, and signal that 2021 was a one-off...an aberration. It'll be a return to the status quo.

But let's not get bogged down in big picture stuff...that'll sort itself out on it's own. This Saturday, after all of the hype and build-up, a football game will be played. Michigan clearly knows the recipe on to beat Ohio State. Kickoff will be at 12:14. Let's do this damn thing.

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