We asked Paul Klee to break down Saturday's 45-0 loss at Michigan.
— Strap in, buckle up, get a grip. This could get worse before it gets better. Saturday’s 45-point loss was a low point, but it might not be the low point. That could arrive when Illinois enters a 2013 schedule that is more unkind than this one. Over three Big Ten games, Illinois has been torched by an average of 30 points. And this freefall is coming within a mediocre year for Big Ten football. Next season the Big Ten figures to stiffen — it always does — and the Illinois schedule is set up for failure. The so-called winnable games (Indiana, Purdue) are on the road, for one. And next year’s team also could be without NFL prospects Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne and Akeem Spence. What develops in February, when Tim Beckman signs his second recruiting class, is more important than what happens to finish this season.
— The question isn’t whether Beckman can recover from this four-game losing streak and right the sinking ship this season. It’s whether he can recover at all. Perception too often is reality, and the public perception of the first-year staff is as negative as we’ve seen with a first-year staff. There was never a honeymoon. Seven games in, some ticket buyers already want a divorce. Fixing the broken football program won’t be the toughest job in the DIA. At this pace, that honor goes to selling football tickets for the 2013 season.
— Through the first quarter Saturday, Michigan’s players appeared content to dance and jive and sprint past Illini defenders. Once the Wolverines realized they could run over them, too, the hosts turned into merciless bullies. Fitzgerald Toussaint punished a defensive back who dared to challenge his running lane. Thomas Rawls saw no running lane, so he created one with a powerful shoulder. Michigan beat Illinois worse than Illinois beat Charleston Southern; the talent differential was as obvious as the rain that drenched Michigan Stadium. That must be a significant consideration as critics judge Beckman’s first season. “Coach is a strong individual. He understands that Rome wasn’t built in a day,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “That’s why we’re here.”
— Credit the Illini for disregarding the injury excuse. Supo Sanni, who has been one of the injured, said the list of injuries shouldn’t be considered an alibi for the blowout defeats. So did Graham Pocic. “It’s embarrassing,” he said simply. One of the most important players joined the walking wounded on the sideline Saturday. Yet Hawthorne maintained a positive approach during a tough-to-stomach game. When fellow defensive back Justin Green batted away a pass, Hawthorne (concussion) jumped into the air and shouted his approval. “I thought Terry did a great job on the sidelines,” Beckman said. “He knew he wasn’t going to play. We asked him to be a leader.”
— Any criticisms leveled in the direction of Nathan Scheelhaase are off the mark. The third-year starter hardly has a chance; when he’s not scrambling to avoid pressure, receivers often are dropping his passes. Before he was knocked from Saturday’s game with a concussion, Scheelhaase made one of the better plays for Illinois. On a third and long, he avoided the pass rush for just long enough to fire a pass to Darius Millines. It hit Millines right between the numbers but bounced to the turf. All told, Michigan tripled Illinois in first downs (21-7) and quadrupled the Illini in total yards (527-134). The Illini never advanced beyond the Michigan 32-yard line.
— It’s fair to question the Illini’s decision to attempt a long field goal early in the second quarter. Considering the conditions (wet and getting wetter), an inexperienced kicker (redshirt freshman Taylor Zalewski), the score (10-0 Michigan) and the length of the kick (50 yards), it seemed more advantageous to pin the Wolverines with a punt. Instead, the kick missed right, and Michigan began another touchdown drive.
— The team up north is bowl eligible again. Northwestern won its sixth game with a 21-13 victory at Minnesota and will play in a bowl for the fifth straight season. The Wildcats are opportunistic and plucky, with four of those wins coming by 10 points or less.
— How does Jerry Kill make it work in spite of a scary health condition? His staff is a big reason. Kill suffered another seizure Saturday and reportedly was resting comfortably in a Minneapolis hospital. I witnessed this scenario when Kill was at SIU; his system was so firmly entrenched, his staff so tight, the Salukis didn’t skip a beat during one of Kill’s midseason setbacks. The coordinators — Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover — have been with Kill since the 1990s. Position coaches Brian Anderson, Pat Poore, Jay Sawvel and Rob Reeves all were on his staff at SIU. The continuity has allowed them to succeed even as the head coach battles his health condition. Continuity within a staff often is undervalued.
In the Stadium
— He’s been the Dee Brown of Michigan football, his highlights, style and smile almost bigger than the program. But where will Denard Robinson fit next season in the NFL? As spectacular as Robinson can be on the ground, his professional future isn’t at quarterback.
“A lot of that will depend on what he wants or what he wants to try to play (quarterback). Whether the NFL thinks he’s a quarterback or not, if he feels he doesn’t want to play anything other than quarterback, he’s not going to,” said Michael Rothstein, who covers Michigan for wolverinenationespn.com. “I actually talked to Antwaan Randle El this week and he said, ‘Yeah, he’s probably going to be a wide receiver.’ His career path would look a lot like Antwaan Randle El or a guy like Brad Smith or Josh Cribbs.
“Those are great models for what Denard Robinson could be in the NFL. He’s as fast if not faster than all those guys. But as a quarterback he certainly hasn’t shown the accuracy on long passes or out routes that you need to play in the NFL.”
— Illinois officials toured Crisler Center on Saturday morning to get a peek at Michigan basketball’s upgrades. Athletic director Mike Thomas said it was helpful to see an older facility that had been renovated, instead of a new arena built from the ground up. As part of the changes to the basketball arena, available seating shrunk by 1,000 seats.
— Prior to kickoff, Michigan unretired the No. 48 jersey of former President Gerald Ford. Yes, unretired. Michigan is honoring its legends by putting their retired jerseys back on the field. Sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan switched from No. 44 to Ford’s 48.
— In the stadium, the attendance was announced at 110,922. “The largest crowd to watch a football game in the country today,” the P.A. announcer said. The announced attendance through four home games this season at Memorial Stadium: 182,084.