Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY breaks down five hot topics ahead of the 11 a.m. kickoff against Michigan at Memorial Stadium:
Illinois gets a national TV game Saturday with its showdown against Michigan set to air on ABC, the first Illini home game on ABC during the Lovie Smith era. The crew of Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Greg McElroy (analysis) and Tom Luginbill (sideline reports) will handle the call. That the opponent is Michigan probably drove the national TV game, and it could be rough sailing for the Illini against the No. 16 Wolverines. Illinois has lost its last 23 games against ranked opponents, with a 17-14 victory against No. 22 Arizona State in 2011 the last win. The Illini have just nine wins total against ranked teams during the last two decades.
Winning one battle
Redshirt junior linebacker Jake Hansen is tied for the national lead in both fumbles forced (four) and fumbles recovered (three) in five games. He’s a leading reason Illinois is eighth nationally as a team with 12 takeaways, and two of those led to the Illini’s only touchdowns last week at Minnesota (tying them for fourth nationally in defensive scores). “We haven’t scored defensively around here in so long, and that’s one of our main goals,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “We start every game wanting to do that. ... Jake Hansen has made play after play throughout the year. Great pass rush, and when you get to the quarterback to not just think ‘sack’ but to also get the football out also.”
Unless Brandon Peters has recovered from the still undisclosed injury that knocked him out of last week’s game at Minnesota in the second quarter, Illinois’ starting quarterback Saturday against Michigan — whomever that may be (Matt Robinson is the leader in the clubhouse) — will be making his first career start. That will be the eighth different starter in three-plus seasons for Smith after Wes Lunt, Jeff George Jr., Chayce Crouch, Cam Thomas, AJ Bush Jr., M.J. Rivers II and Peters. George’s first start also came against Michigan. He didn’t complete a pass until the third quarter and finished 4 of 15 for 95 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Smith spent plenty of time after last week’s loss to Minnesota and again earlier this week talking about tackling. Mostly how the Illini weren’t doing enough of it. Missed tackles was his answer for the Gophers’ 332 rushing yards. Probably not acceptable for former Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus, who had his statue unveiled Friday. “If you need a little more motivation, then I know Dick Butkus can give you that,” Smith said. That came more from Butkus’ presence on campus since he chooses not to address teams formally anymore.
Predicting the future
Illinois and Michigan are at opposite ends of the team defense spectrum this season. The Wolverines rank 18th nationally, giving up 288.8 yards per game. After three straight rough weeks, the Illini are 96th, having given up 423.6 yards per game. Michigan hasn’t blown the doors off teams offensively, but Illinois has been the defense that’s cured ailing Nebraska and Minnesota. Wolverines 48, Illini 24