ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Where do you start?
If this was a boxing match, the ref would have stopped it. A chess match, a concession. A baseball game, the shortstop would pitch to save arms.
Where’s the towel when you want to toss it in?
“Embarrassing ... extremely surprising!” senior Graham Pocic said.
Two years ago Pocic was a sophomore center engaged in a Big Ten classic — a 67-65 loss to Michigan — and here he was Saturday, snapping for a hapless (nine straight conference losses) squad that floundered while the Wolverines frolicked.
This is the same Michigan team that was mugged earlier by Alabama, barely escaped Air Force 31-25 and was shut down by Notre Dame.
But the Wolverines appear to be finding themselves as they head into consecutive showdowns against Michigan State and Nebraska with the division championship in the balance. As a tuneup, the Wolverines outgained Illinois by an astonishing 527 to 134. Illinois netted 29 yards passing. TWENTY-NINE! What would Mike White think or, rather, what would Bob Zuppke think?
The 241st consecutive Big House crowd topping 100,000 came out to watch the debacle on a rainy afternoon, and half of them were gone by the end of the third quarter. Not much happened thereafter except for sub Thomas Rawls’ 63-yard TD dash to finalize it at 45-0.
What we witnessed through the mist Saturday was the collision of rival cultures: Michigan, proud and talented and fiercely supported, simply overwhelming an opponent that has been unraveling through the years and has lost the heart of its fans and the ability to respond to adversity.
Michigan located a Schembechler-style coach, Brady Hoke, who could burrow into that culture. The Illini, meanwhile, have turned to Tim Beckman in yet another coaching change that so far hasn’t clicked. The Illini have seldom appeared more bedraggled than in losing by scores of 52-24, 35-7, 31-14 and 45-0 in a four-week stretch.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this,” Beckman said. “It’s tough. Everyone is hurting.”
It is a story growing old. In 50 meetings dating to Ray Eliot’s last team in 1959 — leading into the brother rivalry of Pete and Bump Elliott — the Wolverines have won 42, lost six and tied two.
Adversity hit early Saturday. First, the Illini couldn’t make third and 1 near midfield and had to punt. On Michigan’s fifth play, the Illini were caught napping on a flip to Jeremy Gallon, and he rambled 71 yards through an outmaneuvered secondary.
There was a slight lull when Denard Robinson got dinged and sat down for two possessions, but he returned for a spectacular 33-yard burst to set up his 6-yard score, then took Michigan to two more TDs in the first five minutes of the second half. He proved with his 18th 100-yard game what an extraordinary ballcarrier he is.
“Denard had a special game,” Beckman said. “We didn’t play well defensively or in any department. There’s not a happy soul in our locker room. We’re at a crossroads.”
Illinois did not reach Michigan’s 30-yard line, much less the red zone. Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase went out in the second quarter with a concussion but is expected to be cleared when Illinois plays its homecoming game with Indiana in two weeks.
— Mike Thomas, still awaiting schematic architectural designs for the Assembly Hall, analyzed the renovation of Crisler Center on his trip to Ann Arbor. The UI athletic director said that tweaking has continued between the engineering firm and the university, but he is still targeting corporations and others who might be interested in premium seating opportunities.
— Former UI Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who oversaw Syracuse’s move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, has announced she’ll step down at the end of her contract in June 2014. Cantor had reportedly met resistance, but not in the early completion of a billion-dollar fundraising drive for professorships, scholarships and facilities.
— Missouri fans must be longing for the Big 12 and that early game with Illinois in St. Louis. Saturday’s 42-10 loss to Alabama left the Tigers 0-4 in their initial SEC season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.