Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/9/11

The Michigan Wolverines (7-2, 3-2) hit the road for a critically important match up with Illinois (6-3, 2-3). Michigan lost at Iowa last week and now desperately needs a win to keep their Big Ten title hopes alive. The game will kickoff at 3:36pm and be televised on ABC.

When these two teams squared off in 2010 they scored a combined 132 points or 26 more than the basketball game between these two schools produced last year. It took 3 overtimes to rack up all those points, but defense was not at a premium.

Illinois started the season 6-0 before losing 3 consecutive games (Penn State, Purdue, and Ohio State). They spent last week on a bye licking their wounds and readying for the hated Wolverines to roll into town. “I think they’re bringing extra bleachers in or something like that,” said Brady Hoke on Monday. “It’s Michigan. I mean, if you’re Michigan, you’re going to get people’s best. That’s just the way it is. It’s a good thing, so we’ll be fine. ”

Illinois does have the nation’s sack leader in junior DE Whitney Mercilus. He has notched 11.5 sacks and a Big Ten leading 16.5 TFLs. The Fighting Illini also have the conference’s leading pass catcher in AJ Jenkins who has already hauled in 68 receptions for 1,030 yards and 7 TDs. By comparison, Michigan’s receivers have combined for 78 receptions, 1,389 yards and 7 TDs.

Brandin Hawthorne (7) and William Campbell (73)

Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase is enjoying a fine season with 1,687 passing yards, 12 TDs and just 5 interceptions. He has also rushed for a team high 501 yards. “[Jason] Ford is a back who can get some tough yards, plus he’s got a pretty good jump cut,” Hoke noted.

For Michigan it’s going to be all about taking care of the football. Turnovers have cost them dearly in both of their losses this season. Last week it was a goal line interception on a tipped pass and a lost fumble that proved too much to overcome. In their other loss, also on the road, it was a costly pick six against the Spartans that sealed their demise. Turnovers are always devastating, but on the road that devastation is amplified.

Through 9 games, the story of the season has been U-M’s thoroughly improved defense. They’ve been stingy in the red zone and their relentless, swarming, pursuit of the ball has yielded a bountiful crop of turnovers. Their technique has been sure and the tackling has been pure.

The quantum leap from the bottom of the national rankings to the upper echelon has been achieved with a blend of savvy veterans, unflappable freshmen, and outstanding coaching. They’ll need to be precise against the Illini’s athletic offense.

Prediction: Last week’s loss to Iowa was the first time Michigan has deviated from the script I laid out back in August. U-M used to struggle against spread teams, but lately it has been smash mouth teams that have gotten the best of them (Michigan State, Iowa). Illinois is more flash than smash and that bodes well for a Michigan win. Wolverines 28 Illini 20

You can follow me on Twitter @isportsRob

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