Over the past five games, Illinois has scored an average of 20 points per game. Through the first five games of the season, when the Illini were 4–1, Illinois averaged close to 30 points per game. Illinois’ offense hasn’t been bad, it has a very strong rushing attack, but the Illini haven’t been super stellar in scoring points lately.
Illinois had problems with Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue during this second half of the season. Michigan has played both MSU and Iowa, and the Wolverines haven’t had too many problems with either team. The Hawkeyes tried to stage a late comeback, but it appeared that Michigan believed the game was over and was playing coverage soft which allowed Spencer Petras to sling the ball around.
Brett Bielema lost Brandon Peters at quarterback last year, so he went out and grabbed former Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito in the transfer portal. DeVito has been very efficient for the Illini this season. He is completing 70% of his passes and averaging 208 yards per game through the air. DeVito has thrown 15 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions.
But what seems to be lacking for Illinois in the passing game is downfield throws. DeVito averaged 7.3 yards throwing the ball per attempt. For comparison, JJ McCarthy averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. According to Pro Football Focus, DeVito has attempted 184 passes between 0 and 9 yards. He attempted 92 passes of 10-or-more yards and two of his interceptions came from throwing the ball for 20-or-more yards. The Illini signal-caller is completing 82% of his passes that are nine or fewer yards, 50% that are between 10 and 19, and only 38% of the throws he attempts go 20-yards from the field. is below more than . The Illini are 92nd in the country in completing passes over 20 yards.
But the strong point of the Illinois offense is its run game. Star Chase Brown was injured last week, but Bielema told the media that Brown is headed in the right direction to play on Saturday. Brown is second in the nation in averaging 144 yards per game and has rushed for 1,442 yards through 10 games, while also scoring seven scores on the ground. Brown is averaging a little over five yards per carry and PFF goes into detail on how many yards he is gaining.
The left end of the line is the money maker for the Browns and Illini. When Brown ran the ball to the left of left tackle and tight end, he scored three touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He has run 64 times this season on the side that has carried the most balls in any direction. The Illini have gotten even more first downs in that direction with Brown. Brown has gained 15 first downs when running left end, compared to 13 running on the right side of the line. His other preferred direction to carry the ball is the opposite direction – the right end. He carried the ball 58 times for 306 yards.
Illinois doesn’t have much depth behind Chase Brown. If Junior is unable to go, the Illini will look to Reggie Love III. He has carried the ball 46 times for 188 yards this season.
The Fighting Illini have three main targets for DeVito in the passing game. Sophomore Isaiah Williams is Illinois’ go-to man, catching the ball 64 times for 553 yards (8.6 yards per reception) and five touchdowns. Junior Brian Hightower is second on the team with 34 catches for 428 yards and two scores. Finally, a second Pat Bryant should see some targets. Bryant had 31 catches for 420 yards and two touchdowns.
Illinois ranks 52nd in the nation allowing 18 sacks this season. PFF ranked the Illini’s offensive line as the 40th pass-blocking team in the country with a grade of 70.9. Illinois also ranks 24th in run blocking with a 72.8 grade by PFF. Michigan has sacked the quarterback 31 times this season and is the 12th-ranked team in sacks. Mike Morris leads the team with 7.5 sacks.
The Illini have had some problems keeping the ball this season. He has turned the ball over 15 times this season and ranks 72nd in the country. But the Wolverines have had problems creating turnovers this season. Michigan, ranked 102nd in the country, has forced 11 turnovers.
One area where Michigan should have a significant advantage on defense will be in the red zone. The Wolverines are the 22nd ranked red zone defense, allowing teams to score 76% of their shots in the red zone. But the Illini really struggled to score points when they got into the red zone. Illinois has the 107th-ranked red zone offense, scoring 77% of the time it gets inside the 20. To top it off, the Fighting Illini have scored touchdowns in the red zone 43% of the time.