College football and college basketball writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Silence fell over Michigan Stadium in an instant, more than 100,000 people falling silent in response to the horror on the sidelines. Star running back Blake Corum – he of 1,457 yards and 18 touchdowns in a fine Heisman Trophy campaign – was immobilized clutching his left knee after a low tackle by Illinois defensive end Xavier Scott.
As members of Michigan’s medical staff rushed the field, the crowd pondered the implications of what Corum’s injury meant for today, next Saturday and beyond. Would their dominant 10-0 start to the season dissolve on the cusp of a rematch with No. 2 Ohio State? Would their path to a second straight College Football Playoff appearance detour into something less desirable?
But 20 minutes later, after a lukewarm reaction to the marching band’s half-time performance, the fans regained their collective voice. Corum left the locker room unaided, in uniform and ready to participate in the second half warm-ups. He returned to the field on Michigan’s second offensive snap before leaving the game for good a few minutes later.
This could have been the end for head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team, a group exposed as a one-trick pony forced to play without its thoroughbred. And yet a passing attack maligned as much by his fleeting presence as his general ineffectiveness made good enough in the final minutes: gains of three yards, eight yards, five yards and a crucial pass interference penalty that gave the Wolverines 15 more.
They marched from their own 48-yard line to the Illinois 17, and kicker Jake Moody did the rest. His 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left completed a fourth-quarter comeback for a 19-17 victory. The dream of an undefeated season continues.
Here are some takeaways from Ann Arbor:
Sticky situation on the running back
With the possibility of an undefeated matchup against Ohio State on the horizon, the Wolverines’ two main goals Saturday were to beat Illinois and avoid major injuries. The score, aesthetics and precise form of victory were less important than simply getting the job done.
Michigan entered the game with little difficulty at running back with Corum’s top running mate, former five-star prospect Donovan Edwards, unavailable after sitting out last week’s win over Nebraska. Their only other tailback with legitimate experience this season is true freshman CJ Stokes, an infrequent contributor with good efficiency.
Corum ignited the crowd with a 37-yard burst on the first play down the stretch, leaping at the line to find a hole and then throwing defensive back Kendall Smith in the open field. He capped the score with three consecutive goal-line carries to drop into the end zone for an early lead. At the half, Corum averaged better than five yards per carry on 17 attempts and gained 41 yards on a screen pass from quarterback JJ McCarthy.
Although Corum returned for a few snaps early in the third quarter, most of the carries in the second half were split between Stokes and reserve Isaiah Gash. An Illinois defense ranked sixth nationally in stopping the run reduced Michigan’s average gain from 6.7 yards per play in the first half to 3.8 in the second as the Wolverines failed to end zone after the break.
No heart, no explosiveness.
Proving its worth
To some extent, the praise heaped on Corum has overshadowed the exploits of Illinois running back Chase Brown, who arrived in Ann Arbor as the nation’s leading rusher with 1,442 yards, nearly three dozen more than anyone in FBS. Last week’s loss to Purdue was the only time he’s been held under 100 yards this season.
His situation for Saturday was complicated by a leg injury suffered in the final minutes against the Boilermakers, and the final decision on his participation did not come until just hours before kickoff. He adjusted, pounded the ball between tackles and racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns on 29 attempts to frustrate one of the nation’s best defenses.
Head coach Bret Bielema’s strong commitment to the running game was instrumental in cutting the Wolverines. The Illini gained three yards in the first quarter, 60 in the second and 75 in the third as Brown’s 3- and 4-yard gains expanded into bigger chunks that consistently moved the chains. He exploded down the right side and into open space for a 37-yard score that gave Illinois a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter.
The debate over the Big Ten’s best running back continues, and Minnesota star Mohamed Ibrahim would probably like a word, but Brown acquitted himself well.
Erratic passing attack downfield
For most Michigan fans, the expectation of what this year’s offense might look like changed the moment Harbaugh declared McCarthy the starter after a long competition with Cade McNamara, the player who guided the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in 17 years last season. McCarthy had the bigger arm, better mobility and the kind of game-changing charisma that McNamara, who was more of a game manager, lacked.
But the dominance of Michigan’s offensive line, coupled with Corum’s excellence and the willingness of its head coach, meant the Wolverines extended their intense focus into a lopsided winning streak. They entered the weekend ranked fourth nationally in rushing with 2,514 yards, having run the ball 188 times more than last season. One could argue that an over-reliance on the run, while effective, stunted the growth of a passing offense averaging just 208.9 yards per game.
Believers in that hypothesis could point to a series of off-target throws Saturday, as McCarthy threw high, wide and behind receivers on routes that cross the middle. He completed just 18 of his 34 attempts for 208 yards against Illinois with a long of 27 on down attempts. Inappropriate routes and a lack of touch rattled the Michigan crowd, especially when he overthrew tight end Colston Loveland for what could have been the game-winning score with just over three minutes remaining. Two screen passes totaling 61 yards further skewed the numbers.
And when McCarthy threw pinpoint passes, like the one he dropped on a bucket after Illinois’ defense appeared to jump offside, big man Andrel Anthony let it slip through his hands for what would have been a touchdown in the third quarter. Gash also dropped a potential touchdown on a short pass out of the backfield in the fourth.
The passing game is a legitimate concern. There is work to be done before traveling to Ohio Stadium next week.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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