CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Michigan football is looking for its third straight win this weekend against Illinois, but all the attention will be on what the Wolverines can do offensively against a struggling defense.
Michigan's win over No. 14 Iowa last weekend was overshadowed by an ugly offensive performance. After putting 10 points on the board early, the Wolverines were shut out for the final 53 minutes of the game, surviving on the backs of its defense.
For a program that underwent a massive offseason transformation to give the offense a boost, the returns have been underwhelming.
Posting a big number on Illinois wouldn't prove the offense is fixed, but struggling against the No. 96 total defense in the nation would raise even deeper concerns.
Michigan scored 52 points against a Rutgers defense allowing 428.8 yards and 36.2 points per game. Illinois allows 423.6 yards and 28.4 points per game.
After Illinois, all six of Michigan's remaining opponents rank No. 52 or better in total defense, including two in the top five. If the Wolverines can't move the ball consistently against the Fighting Illini, it's a dark omen for what's to come.
Michigan's improvement has to start on the ground. The Wolverines are averaging just 3.51 yards per run, which is outside the top 100 nationally. Illinois is No. 71 defensively, allowing 4.11 yards per rush.
Michigan hasn't been able to open up the passing game by running the ball effectively, but Josh Gattis might want to try doing the opposite.
Shea Patterson has the weapons to dominate Illinois through the air, whether it's in the short passing game or over the top. Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are all mismatches for the Illinois secondary, so the offense could try to come out firing.
If the passing game gets rolling, it will open up the running game. Michigan has to get into a rhythm on the ground heading into Penn State next week.
Zach Charbonnet is the most obvious candidate to break out on the ground. Since his 100-yard effort against Army, he's gained just 70 yards on 20 carries in three games.
Michigan is clearly trying to limit his carries, but it's also crippling the running game.
Whether it's Charbonnet, Christian Turner, Tru Wilson or someone else, Michigan needs to establish a running game. It shouldn't take seven weeks for a team to be able to run the ball, no matter how new the offense is.
Patterson will also be under a microscope after another puzzling performance against Iowa. He's had accuracy issues as well as an inability to go through his progressions. He left the pocket too early on a few plays against Iowa, but also wasn't a major factor in the running game.
Jim Harbaugh has stood by him as the starter, but it's time for him to start looking like a senior starting quarterback.
If he struggles, the only other option would be redshirt freshman Joe Milton, who assumed the backup role after Dylan McCaffrey took a vicious hit to the head against Wisconsin.
Every time Patterson unleashes an errant throw or misses an open receiver, the calls for McCaffrey and Milton get louder. Michigan has plenty of issues, but a quarterback controversy wasn't supposed to be one of them.
It could be hard for Michigan to find wins in the second half of the season, so Illinois is a team it needs to put away early. More importantly, if the offense can hit its stride and match what's become a stout defense, Michigan could surprise some people down the stretch.