Michigan can become bowl eligible by beating floundering Illinois
Expected to contend for a Jan. 1 bowl game with a four-year starter at quarterback (Juice Williams) and one of college football’s most talented receivers (Arrelious Benn), the Illini are, instead, the worst team in the Big Ten.
They haven’t beat a Football Bowl Subdivision team since last Nov. 1, haven’t lost a game by fewer than 10 points this year, and epitomize dysfunction with personnel issues on both sides of the ball and a coach in Zook who most fans want fired but the university, because of an ongoing admissions scandal, might be forced to keep.
Zook received a vote of confidence from athletic director Ron Guenther at halftime of last week’s loss to Purdue.
He said he was appreciative of the gesture, but focused on bigger things - like snapping Illinois’ five-game losing streak today against Michigan (3:30 p.m., ABC).
“No one saw this coming,” Zook said.
And no one at Michigan believes this is the real Illinois team.
“They returned a lot of guys, especially offensively, and I thought that they would be a more dominant team,” defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen said. “But they still have all the players and the capacity to be that team, so we have to prepare like they’re the best team we’re going to play this year.”
Illinois (1-6, 0-5) handed Michigan one of its most disheartening losses last year, 45-20, at Michigan Stadium.
Williams, the Big Ten leader in total offense as a junior, shredded Michigan’s defense for 431 yards and four touchdowns as the Wolverines once again struggled to stop a dual-threat quarterback.
“They’re a very, very talented football team,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “They went up and down the field on us pretty easy (last year), and it’s a lot of the same players. So I don't think I have to remind our guys, particularly defensively, about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn and all those guys. That's going to be an easy sell.
“Plus, we’re at the point, our guys, we’ve got to improve ourselves.”
Michigan (5-3, 1-3) has lost its last three games to FBS competition after starting the season 4-0 and got handled last week by Penn State, 35-10.
“It was an eye-opener for us,” cornerback Troy Woolfolk said. “We thought we would have played them better than that and we just now know how much work we need to do.”
Rodriguez said that work starts offensively, where the Wolverines have committed nine turnovers in their last two Big Ten games and are dealing with nagging injuries to quarterback Tate Forcier (shoulder), running back Brandon Minor (ankle) and receiver Martavious Odoms (knee).
Starting center David Molk is out for the season with a torn right ACL.
Off the field, Michigan is dealing with turmoil, too. Cornerback Boubacar Cissoko was removed from the roster Tuesday for repeated violations of team rules, and a day earlier Michigan received an official “Notice of Inquiry” from the NCAA saying it would continue to investigate allegations of improper practice time.
Rodriguez said none of that should affect his team’s performance, and with the Wolverines one win from away from being bowl eligible after going 3-9 last year, there’s plenty riding on today.
“I don’t think the players have let anything distract them from the first week of the season all the way up to now,” Rodriguez said. “There have been times we haven’t played well, but it hasn’t been a lack of focus and preparation. And so a little bit more drama externally doesn’t affect what we do internally.”