CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — By halftime Michigan had eight times as many yards as Illinois. Deep into the second half the Wolverine defense still hadn’t let the Illini cross midfield.
Yet as the clock wound down on the third quarter, all that had gotten the 22nd-ranked Wolverines was a 10-point lead on an Illinois team starting to piece together a rally.
Cornerback J.T. Floyd provided the missing piece, picking off Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass and returning it 43 yards to set up a decisive touchdown, giving Michigan a 31-14 win that Michigan’s coaches credited in large part to their defense.
“We talk about it all the time, but there’s a standard at Michigan, and you have to live up to that, and you’re judged by it,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “We (hadn’t) come to that final point where you win a game on defense, and we said that this is our last away trip to do it. I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys.”
While the defense was dominant, Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 192 yards and a touchdown while backup quarterback Devin Gardner, in relief of the injured Denard Robinson, threw that key fourth-quarter TD pass, finding Martavious Odoms in the end zone for a 24-7 lead just after Illinois scored
Robinson scored two rushing touchdowns, but didn’t play after a big third-quarter hit bruised his wrist. Michigan (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) was up just 14-0 at the time and head coach Brady Hoke said he could have returned, but the coach didn’t feel like he needed to.
“Devin was doing some good things,” Hoke said. “I thought he made a really nice play when he stepped up in the pocket to Martavious and threw that touchdown pass.”
The Illini (6-4, 2-4) for the fourth week in a row didn’t score in the first half and, after opening 6-0, have lost four straight.
“We are in a funk for some reason and it is something, particularly on the offensive side of the football, that we have not seen since I have been here,” Illini coach Ron Zook said.
The game, even at halftime, felt like blowout. Illinois had 30 yards of offense at the half, including minus-12 on the ground, and not one point on the board. They didn’t move the ball into Wolverines territory until late in the third quarter.
And still, thanks to their defense, a missed field by Michigan goal and a touchdown by Robinson called back by the officials, the Illini were in the game at 17-0 when Scheelhaase drove them deep into Michigan territory late in the third quarter.
Scheelhaase gave Illinois life it might not have deserved, running in from the 14 with 19 seconds left in the quarter. Scheelhaase sold a strong fake that gave him room to run outside and, at 17-7, Illinois had its first points and a shot.
But the Wolverines responded.
After a quick stop by Illinois’ defense, Floyd picked Scheelhaase off. From the nine, Gardner found Odoms and the margin was back to 17.
Ilinois answered with an 18-play drive that took 6:08 off the clock, capped by Jason Ford’s 1-yard run with 3:50 to play. Michigan answered with a score of its own 40 seconds later, when Toussaint ran it in from 27 yards out following a failed onside kick.
Then, it was finally over. Michigan missed plenty of chances to put the game away early, while Illinois responded with mistakes of its own.
Each team had three turnovers, and two came in the final six minutes of the first half, during a quick series of possessions that ultimately went nowhere.
Robinson, after hitting Kevin Koger on a 40-yard pass, ran for what the officials initially ruled was an 8-yard touchdown. But replays showed Robinson stepped out near the 2-yard line and the officials called it back.
On fourth and 1, a low snap appeared to slow Robinson in the backfield and Michael Buchanan dragged him down for a loss.
But Ford dropped the ball on the next play and Michigan’s Thomas Gordon recovered it at the Illini 13.
Three plays later, Whitney Mercilus sacked Robinson and knocked the ball loose. Tavon Wilson recovered it with 3:55 left in the first half, in the process giving the Illini their best field position of the game to that point at their own 32.
Ford appeared to fumble again inside his own 20 with 14 seconds left in the first half, a ball Courtney Avery grabbed and ran into the end zone. But replays showed Ford’s elbow hit the ground before the ball came out, and the officials overturned that call, too, sparing Illinois yet again.
With 1:05 left before halftime, Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal from 36 yards with a stiff wind at his back.
He atoned for it early in the third quarter, after Ryan Lankford dropped a third-quarter punt that Michigan’s John McColgan fell on. This time, Gibbons converted on a 26-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead with 4:31 to play in the quarter.
With the missed field goal and other blown chances, Hoke said his team left points on the field.
“It’s frustrating. Everybody gets frustrated,” he said. “The kids are giving great effort and are working their tails off. They want to score touchdowns.”
As erratic as both teams were, Toussaint was a rock.
He had 121 yards by the end of the first quarter, and set the tone for the game early.
The 195-pound sophomore burst through the middle of the Illinois defense for 65 yards on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Toussaint was tackled from behind at the Illinois 15 by Wilson but two plays later Robinson weaved his way through the Illini and into the end zone from the nine for a 7-0 lead.
“It gave me confidence and it gave the whole offense confidence,” Toussaint said of the fast start. “If we do that early, we help everyone out.”
Illinois ended the day with just 37 yards on the ground. Scheelhaase was 16-31 for 170 yards in the air with one interception, but he was sacked four times.
“We played hard, we played physical and I don’t think they ran the ball too well against us,” Wolverine defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. “Those are staples of a Michigan defense.”
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