Most people who watched the Michigan-Illinois game were probably shocked. If they were Illinois fans, they couldn't believe the utter ineptitude that has gripped their program since the firing of Ron Zook. If they were Michigan fans, they couldn't believe the suffocating defensive effort.
It was a cold, rainy afternoon on October 13, Michigan's homecoming, as the Wolverines took the field against the Fighting Illini in a series that has made Michigan fans nervous in the past. There was that 65-63 triple overtime "thriller" in the final year of the Rodriguez era that was more an indictment of his porous defense than a display of how exciting college football could be. We've come a long way.
The atrocious weather made some believe that this would be a defensive battle all around, that neither Michigan nor Illinois would be able to get many points. As it turned out, only one team was really affected by the weather.
It wasn't Michigan.
I have a hard time believing that Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse would have made a tangible difference in the game. He could have helped the offense put together one or two drives that may or may not have resulted in scores, but the game was decided early. The Illini could not do anything on either side of the ball. Dropped passes and poor tackling ruled the day, and Michigan ran right over them just as they had done to Purdue.
Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan had a career day, bringing praise from popular Michigan blogs such as MGoBlog and Maize n' Brew. Ryan was also recently listed as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. You can see highlights of the Michigan-Illinois game here.
Illinois fans must be in a stupor at this point. They called for the firing of Ron Zook after the 2011 season, which started optimistically with six straight wins and breaking into the Top 25 rankings, ended with six straight losses, and they got their wish. Despite having totaled the same record as the previous year, Zook was unceremoniously fired. His team still won the bowl game, the first time Illinois has ever won back to back bowls in school history.
The athletic director for the Illini, Mike Thomas, went out and realized that no one was interested in Illinois, not with so many other programs in coaching transitions during the offseason. So he called up Tim Beckman, your 2011 MAC coach du-jour, and offered him the job. A huge upgrade over Ron Zook? Not really.
Beckman has quickly become one of the least likeable coaches in the Big Ten. He overdid the enthusiasm at Big Ten Media Days to the point where other programs were laughing at him, not with him. He sent his staff to stand outside the dorm rooms of Penn State football players following the NCAA's sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And just two weeks ago, Beckman got caught chewing tobacco during a nationally televised football game, which is an NCAA rule violation.
Of course, the biggest crime for any college football coach is losing, not chewing, and that's exactly what Beckman has done. Against even medium opponents, his teams have gotten blown out. Despite the talent of projected first round draft picks like Michael Buchanan (a product of Ron Zook recruiting and coaching, by the way), Beckman's defense has failed miserably to meet any of their expectations.
When Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he and every Illinois fan hoped that Beckman would at least match Zook's winning record from the past two years. Instead, the Illini have gotten worse, much worse. That became brutally apparent to the one remaining Illinois football blog after the Michigan game Saturday:
Less than two years ago, we scored 63 points at Michigan. With Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. How could we fall that far in 24 months? Yes, Michigan’s defense has improved tenfold over RichRod’s 2010 defense. But from 63 points to zero? How is that even possible?
The blog, titled "A Lion Eye," is the last Illinois outlet available, ever since Illinois writers from SB Nation's "Hail to the Orange" jumped ship shortly after Beckman's Penn State debacle, which likely brought harassment of the authors from people looking for an explanation of such unethical behavior. (That's what happens when you have an unlikeable coach who does unlikeable things in his first year.)
This was an important win for Michigan. I wrote an op-ed on the SB nation Michigan blog, "Maize n' Brew," where I cited how critical it was to take care of business against Illinois. Michigan's homecoming game against the Illini was the first of three tests in the month of October that could determine if the Wolverines can make the trip to Indianapolis. They have passed the first test.
The next one is against Michigan State. The Spartans are suffering an identity crisis right now like some of their Big Ten brethren. Consider this: Michigan State whooped Central Michigan 41-7 in week two, Iowa lost to Central Michigan 32-31, and Michigan State just lost to Iowa 19-16. Is Michigan State worse than Iowa, or were the Spartans possibly looking ahead to their trip to Ann Arbor? I'm going to go with the latter.
Michigan State has been terrible against Ohio State, Indiana, and Iowa, and are now 1-2 in the Big Ten, when everyone expected them to be conference contenders. Some Michigan fans have started to believe that the Spartans will be similarly terrible against the Maize and Blue. I don't believe it for a second. Dantonio is obsessed with beating Michigan, as are the Spartans. As much as I would like to believe that Michigan State is just plain bad this year, it's far more likely that their obsession with the in-state rival has come back to bite them.
The Wolverines shouldn't underestimate the Spartans when they come to Ann Arbor this Saturday. The memories of the last four years should be fresh in their minds. This is still a key divisional matchup, and rest assured, it should not be shocking if Michigan State plays their best game of the entire year. Even in their worst years, the Spartans have always pushed a little harder when they played Michigan. For the last four years, the Wolverines have come to the fight and were not prepared.
Let's hope this time they are.