ANN ARBOR, MICH. - The Michigan machine continues to roll.
While cruising past Illinois, 41-8, at Michigan Stadium was not quite the 78-0 rout at Rutgers, that’s a standard few teams will ever reach, let alone duplicate.
The Wolverines, ranked No. 4 in the Amway Coaches poll, took off early on the not-so-Fighting Illini with touchdowns on the first four drives, opening a 28-0 lead just 19 minutes into the game.
The offensive pace slowed after, with the U-M starters failing to score another touchdown before their day ended early in the fourth quarter.
But Michigan has a larger perspective these days, impressing national voters and the College Football Playoff selection committee as it improved to 7-0 (4-0 Big Ten) for the first time since 2006.
This was about the Wolverines rolling another hapless opponent and refining its edges as it prepares to head to East Lansing in a revenge game against Michigan State next week.
When Illinois (2-5, 1-3) finally scored in the fourth quarter – after U-M botched a fake punt and watched the first pass sail over safety Delano Hill’s arms into the end zone – it ended a run of 119 straight Michigan points, dating back to the fourth quarter Oct. 1 against Wisconsin.
The touchdown was a personal affront to the U-M defense, which was angling for its second straight shutout. It may have been part of the reason a number of defensive starters, including Jabrill Peppers, remained in the game midway through the fourth quarter.
Allowing six first downs was four more than against Rutgers and will likely be mentioned this week.
The offense was efficient early and showed a passing game unseen in weeks.
Quarterback Wilton Speight was as sharp as he’s been in awhile, completing 16 of 23 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, his second-best yardage total of the season.
And after he and tailback De’Veon Smith (a season-high 18 carries for 76 yards) left, as the Wolverines tried to run out the game and found Karan Higdon’s speed.
He finished it out with a few bursts, including a spectacular, weaving 45-yard touchdown. He finished with eight carries for 106 yards but at one point had six carries for 100 yards.
The first halves of most Michigan games seem to be all that matters.
It was just more of the same on Saturday as the Wolverines scored on their first four drives, racing out to a 28-0 lead with 11 minutes to play in the second quarter.
That pushed the string dating back to the Rutgers game of 13 touchdowns in a 14-drive span (not counting the end of halves.)
As with most of Michigan’s efficient offensive drives, in the blowout, there were a few signature moments.
Michigan’s first drive reached the end zone in a creative fashion, featuring three quarterbacks (Speight, Shane Morris and Peppers), plus the return of the train formation on the touchdown toss to Jake Butt.
The second touchdown was a breakthrough for the much-discussed Tyrone Wheatley Jr. as he caught a 17-yard slant from Speight, powering his 280 pounds into the end zone.
The biggest first-half concern came on that drive after tailback Chris Evans’ helmet was crunched between two from Illinois players. But he rose and walked off under his own power.
Smith’s 14-carry first half showed a change in U-M’s philosophy. Only once this year had anyone on the team topped that for a full game, when Smith had 17 against Wisconsin.
The defense was most stifling but showed a bit of that big-play vulnerability, allowing Illinois Ke’Shawn Vaughn a 45 yard first-half gain, saved from a touchdown by Peppers’ hustle and a 43-yard third quarter completion by quarterback Jeff George Jr., his first of the game.
Forced absences: Receivers Grant Perry and Jack Wangler did not dress, along with linebacker Jared Wangler. 247Sports’ U-M site reported that the three were suspended for a transgression during the bye week.
Detroit Free Press