Most expected Michigan's defense to improve this season, but few believed the unit would carry the team.
That's exactly what has happened as Michigan trudges through the second half of its season. Greg Mattison's defense continues to make significant strides, cover up the offense's mistakes and give the offense enough time to get things on track.
Michigan thumped hapless Illinois 31-14 on Saturday, and the margin should have been much bigger. The Wolverines outgained Illinois 249-30 in the opening half but led by only 14 points because of repeated mistakes by the offense. Denard Robinson fumbled twice in the half and Michigan couldn't fully take advantage of 134 first-half rush yards from Fitz Toussaint.
But all the Wolverines' errors didn't matter because their defense stifled Illinois, which has something seriously wrong on offense. The Illini failed to score in the first half for the FOURTH consecutive game, a recipe for disaster against a Michigan team that improves as games go on. Michigan held Illinois to 37 rush yards on 33 carries.
Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin continued to wreak havoc, helping to stuff Illinois' rushing attack. Michigan also received a huge interception from J.T. Floyd early in the fourth quarter.
The concern for Michigan going forward is the offense and specifically the quarterback position. Robinson looks a bit lost right now and completed just 6 of 10 passes before leaving the game in the fourth quarter. He appeared to get banged up late in the game. Devin Gardner led Michigan's final two scoring drives and fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges has some decisions to make before next week's game against Nebraska, both with personnel and with his scheme. Although Toussaint was fabulous with 192 rush yards and a touchdown, the Wolverines can't expect to keep making so many mistakes and win.
Illinois has much bigger problems to worry about. Ron Zook's squad dropped its fourth consecutive game and seemed to backslide on both sides of the ball. The run game simply isn't there and Jason Ford, one of few offensive bright spots the past three contests, had just 26 rush yards and a lost fumble. I really expected more from Illinois' offensive line, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has backslid after a blistering start.
The Illini defense is doing what it can, but the unit clearly needs more help. Illinois also suffered yet another mishap on a punt return.
After recording its best start since 1951 (6-0), Illinois finds itself in serious trouble entering the final two weeks. The calls for Zook's job likely will intensify, particularly if the Illini lose out to finish a once-unfathomable 6-6.