5 keys to victory: Michigan LB Jake Ryan 'unorthodox,' but continues to star (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Unorthodox.
There are a lot of words to describe Jake Ryan, Michigan's dynamic strong-side linebacker. Strong. Fast. Tenacious.
But coach Brady Hoke always comes back to "unorthodox," because of the sophomore's penchant for making big plays despite flawed technique.
He ain't so different off the field either.
“He’s like a Tootsie Pop,” defensive lineman Craig Roh said. “No matter how many times you talk to him, you really never know what you’re going to get until you get to the chocolatey center.”
“I don’t know,” Roh said. “You can’t describe him, really. He’s like, I don’t know -- he’s like smart, but dumb at the same time. But he’s also just random. Just like, ‘Yo,’ randomly.”
Smart. Dumb. Both. Neither.
He's hard to figure.
Except on the field.
Ryan burst onto the scene last year, when he started every game at strong-side linebacker as a redshirt freshman. He earned the nod over a veteran, Cam Gordon, who continues to back him up.
He finished with 37 tackles, including 11 for loss, which was second on a team loaded with defensive playmakers. He recovered or forced three fumbles, third on the team.
Ryan is playing even better as a sophomore. He has 31 tackles, one off the team lead, and has four tackles for loss, which does lead the team.
He's broken up three passes and logged two quarterback hits.
Michigan's linebackers have put together two consecutive stellar performances, but Ryan has been stellar all season.
Even if his form is flawed.
"He just does things differently," Hoke said. "He can get away with fundamentally doing something wrong, but he has that extra gear that makes it right."
Ryan and his linebacking corps will play a key role Saturday against Illinois, a 25-pont underdog that has one true playmaker on offense: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
The third-year starter battled an ankle injury earlier this season, but posted his best game to date last week against Wisconsin.
Scheelhaase is a true dual threat, which means Michigan's linebackers will have to be on high alert.
That matchup appears to favor Michigan, whose linebackers have played superb assigment football for three consecutive halves.
Ryan doesn't always execute those assignments. But he gets the job done as well as any linebacker in the Big Ten.
Other keys to Saturday's game against Illinois:
It's been talked about all week, but here goes again: Starting tailback Fitz Toussaint is in the midst of a season-long slump, averaging just 42.3 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
Twelve of his 17 runs against Purdue gained fewer than 2 yards, and he finished with just 19 overall.
Toussaint has 169 yards on the season. He had 192 last year against Illinois.
Coaches have deflected blame all week, noting Purdue keyed on the tailback -- which sprung quarterback Denard Robinson for 235 yards on the ground -- but the fact is Michigan's tailbacks have yet to show life this season.
Expect to see the Wolverines feed Toussaint early against Illinois, as they try to build momentum for next week's showdown against Michigan State.
Illinois doesn't do a lot of things well, but it has defended nicely in the red zone. It allows scores at a 76.3-percent clip, third in the Big Ten.
And Michigan, lately, hasn't been good in the red zone offensively.
It was a disaster two games ago against Notre Dame, when its first six red-zone plays were a run for minus-2 yards, sack, sack, missed field goal, interception and fumble. Michigan turned five red-zone trips into just six points and no touchdowns in that game.
The Wolverines were only marginally better last week against Purdue, when they missed a field goal, then settled for three converted field goals. Points are points, but six are better than three every time.
That might not make a difference against Illinois, which is a 25-point underdog, but will at some point in the Big Ten season.
Denard Robinson solves Illini
Robinson has put up gaudy numbers against a lot of Big Ten teams, but Illinois seems to have his number.
The quarterback was just 6-of-10 passing for 92 yards and one pick last year against the Illini, and rushed 12 times for just 30 yards. Michigan won the game 31-14, but rode Toussaint and its defense to the win.
In three games against Illinois, Robinson is 17-of-31 passing with three touchdowns and three picks, and 33 carries for 86 yards (2.6 yards per attempt).
Pressure from defensive line
Hoke has been pleased with the overall play of its defensive line, but continues to plead for more quarterback pressure.
Michigan has just five sacks on the season, 107th in the country, and half of them came from the linebackers.
Illinois, on the flip side, has allowed a staggering 20 sacks, which is 119th nationally. It has served them up this year, and Michigan needs to seize the opportunity.
If Michigan can go on the road and thump a respectable Purdue team, it should be able to do the same at home against a terrible Illinois team. The Illini are a mess on both sides of the ball, even if Scheelhaase showed some life against Wisconsin.
The Wolverines' defense has been superb, allowing only two touchdowns in three weeks, and was able to completely stymie Scheelhaase and the Illinois offense last year. The offense is playing equally as well, with the lackluster tailback production the only real black mark.
But Illinois just isn't good enough to take away Robinson, so that's moot. Turnovers also have been a problem for Michigan, but that won't hurt it if the game is out of hand. And it will be. Michigan 44, Illinois 10