ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan football team was dominant for most of its win over Illinois this weekend, but an ugly 20-minute stretch overshadowed many of the positives that came out of the performance.
Jim Harbaugh's team is becoming known for making wins feel like losses, but as it stands, the Wolverines are 5-1 midway through the season.
Michigan showed obvious signs of improvement in the Illinois game. Two running backs averaged better than 6 yards per carry. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Ronnie Bell caught eight of the team's 11 completed passes. The defense made 12 tackles for loss and knocked down eight passes.
But one distinct moment -- when Michigan had let a 28-0 lead dissolve into a 28-25 dogfight -- overshadowed the two long stretches of dominance at the beginning and end of the game.
How did it happen? How did a Michigan team that was running the ball at will down the Illini defense's throat and stuffing a backup quarterback in the backfield time after time end up letting a bad team back into the game?
It takes a lot to collapse that fast. Here are nine factors that contributed to an ugly 20 minutes.
1. Time of possession
The most obvious cause of Michigan's struggles in the third quarter was the time of possession battle, as the Wolverines put together three awful drives while the Illini wore down the defense.
From the 2:53 mark in the second quarter to the 12:50 mark in the fourth quarter -- 20 minutes and 3 seconds of game time -- Michigan had five drives to Illinois' four drives. That didn't matter, though, as Michigan failed to move the ball at all while Illinois scored on all four attempts.
Here's a look at Michigan's five drives:
- 3 plays, 1 yard, 1:01
- 3 plays 12 yards, 0:55 (end of half)
- 3 plays, minus 5 yards, 1:23
- 7 plays, 26 yards, 1:47
- 2 plays, 11 yards, 0:36
What did Michigan do to stop Illinois' momentum? Three three-and-outs, a fumble and one penalty-aided drive that lasted less than two minutes.
Meanwhile, here's what Illinois put together in four drives:
- 6 plays, 67 yards, 1:03
- 10 plays, 31 yards, 3:23
- 15 plays, 80 yards, 7:27
- 6 plays, 36 yards, 2:04
It's hard to fault Don Brown's defense for what happened in the third quarter. Each drive got longer and more demoralizing as Illinois ran 31 plays in four drives while Michigan ran 18 plays in five drives. While the Wolverines held the ball for a total of 5:42, the defense was on the field for 13:57, including 11:14 out of 15 minutes in the third quarter.
After holding Illinois to a field goal on a 10-play drive, Michigan's defense needed a breather. The offense only held the ball for 1:47. After the ensuing 15-play drive that took 7:27 off the clock, the offense desperately needed to move the ball, but instead fumbled on the second play.
Michigan's defense was gassed and put in bad situations by the offense. That's how Illinois got back in the game.
2. Disappearing playmakers
For years, Michigan fans have been frustrated by the team's inability to get the ball to its most dynamic offensive players. Josh Gattis promised to buck that trend, but so far, it hasn't happened.
When the tide was obviously turning in the favor of Illinois, Michigan should have turned to Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black to move the chains and get the game back under control.
But once again, the inability to do so killed an entire quarter of play.
Of the 18 offensive plays during this stretch, only one ended with the ball in the hands of Peoples-Jones or Black. Patterson targeted Peoples-Jones just twice, both for incomplete passes. Black caught one of two targets for nine yards.
The other 14 plays included four Tru Wilson runs and five Zach Charbonnet runs.
Michigan needed a big play. It needed to move the chains and keep the defense off the field. But it couldn't get the ball to its playmakers.
3. Ineffective rushing attack
The talent gap between Michigan and Illinois was glaringly obvious on the first offensive drive, when Michigan ran five plays -- all runs -- and marched 65 yards down the field with ease.
Here's every play from that drive:
- Charbonnet 16-yard run
- Charbonnet 11-yard run
- Charbonnet 5-yard run
- Charbonnet 4-yard run
- Hassan Haskins 29-yard touchdown run
Michigan went 65 yards in five plays, including three big runs and no runs of fewer than four yards.
On the following drive, Charbonnet had runs of 18 and 16 yards. Wilson had runs of 14 and nine yards. In all, Michigan ran for 66 yards in seven attempts.
But that rushing attack evaporated during Illinois' 25-point run. Michigan ran the ball 11 times, with the following results:
- Charbonnet 1-yard run
- Charbonnet 0-yard run
- Charbonnet 9-yard run
- Charbonnet 3-yard run
- Shea Patterson 4-yard loss
- Charbonnet 1-yard loss
- Wilson 5-yard run
- Wilton 1-yard run
- Christian Turner 4-yard loss
- Wilson 5-yard run
- Wilson 6-yard run (fumble)
A team that was averaging nearly 11 yards per run after the first two drives gained a total of 11 yards on 11 attempts, including a lost fumble.
An inability to run the ball put the offense behind schedule and contributed to the time of possession gap.
4. Quarterback inaccuracy
The running game was awful during this five-drive stretch, but the passing attack deserves some blame as well.
Patterson attempted seven passes in this span, completing just one to Black for nine yards. The other six passes were incomplete.
Some of those incompletions were on Patterson. He missed at least two open targets out of those six incomplete passes. But Michigan also has to do a better job scheming players open on third down.
When the offense can't move the ball on the ground and the quarterback can't connect when passing plays are open, it's a recipe for disaster.
Outside this stretch, Patterson was 10 of 15 passing for 185 yards and three touchdowns. That's an average of 12.3 yards per attempt, which on its own would have created a very different feel for Michigan's struggling quarterback.
Michigan only turned the ball over twice this week, but considering the team's history of fumbles this season, the fact that the Wolverines put the ball on the ground three times was indefensible.
Everyone knows Michigan has a fumbling problem, so why hasn't it been addressed? That's a fair question for a team that's lost nine fumbles this season -- second only to Colorado State's 12 lost fumbles.
Only one of the turnovers came during Michigan's 20-minute disappearing act. The Wolverines still held a somewhat comfortable 11-point lead late in the third quarter when Wilson -- a veteran and normally Michigan's most reliable running back in terms of ball security and pass protection -- coughed it up for the first time this season.
Not only was the defense still recovering from a 15-play drive, but the fumble allowed a red-hot Illinois offense to get right back on a short field and cut the lead to three points.
Sometimes the number of turnovers isn't as important as the timing, and the timing of Wilson's fumble couldn't have been much worse.
Michigan only had about half as many penalty yards as Illinois, but there were some back-breaking mistakes that allowed Illinois to stay alive.
Illinois' first touchdown drive was aided by a Carlo Kemp personal foul for 15 yards. Two plays later, Matt Robinson hit Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 23-yard touchdown.
On the second Illinois touchdown drive, Michigan had stuffed Ra'Von Bonner twice for short gains inside the 5-yard line to set up a third and goal from the 3-yard line.
But a defensive holding penalty in the secondary gave Illinois a free set of downs from the 1-yard line, and Robinson finally punched it in on second and goal.
Michigan had also seemingly stopped Illinois on its two-point conversion attempted after the third touchdown, but a pass interference call gave the Fighting Illini another chance from the 1-yard line, which they converted.
The defense had a few chances to get off the field with minimal damage, but untimely mistakes kept Illinois alive.
7. Third down defense
Michigan also could have gotten off the field several times on third down during this stretch, but Illinois converted four of six attempts, and one of the failed attempts was converted on fourth down.
The first offensive drive of the second half started with two straight third down conversions for Illinois -- one on a 14-yard pass and another on a 9-yard quarterback scramble.
Illinois ultimately failed on a third down attempt thanks to an offensive holding call, but still converted a 50-yard field goal.
On the following drive, Robinson completed a critical third and nine with a long pass to Imatorbhebhe, then handed off to Bonner on a fourth and one to keep the drive alive in the red zone.
The aforementioned third down holding call inside the 5-yard line also aided the second touchdown.
For a defense that was already wearing down, coming so close to getting off the field only to see Illinois convert was demoralizing and led to 25 unanswered points.
8. Long passing plays
Despite being without starting quarterback and Michigan transfer Brandon Peters, Illinois did the majority of its damage through the air.
Without Lavert Hill on the field, Michigan struggled to stop the Illini passing attack.
Robinson completed passes of 18 and 23 yards on his first touchdown drive. He converted a third down with a 14-yard pas on the second touchdown drive.
A 35-yard pass to Imatorbhebhe was the dagger on the 80-yard touchdown drive. Illinois' final score was set up to passes for 20 and 19 yards.
Michigan's normally reliable secondary was on its heels for the entire second quarter, and those chunk plays kept Illinois' offense firing on all cylinders.
9. No sense of urgency
With games against No. 7 Penn State, No. 8 Notre Dame, rival Michigan State and No. 4 Ohio State looming in the second half, the Illinois game looked like Michigan's best chance to work on its issues offensively.
But there was seemingly no urgency to do so.
Not only did Michigan stray away from its best players for long stretches, it didn't even try to convert in scenarios that could pop up later in the season.
For example, after a Ben Mason penalty put Michigan in a second and goal from the 26-yard line on the second drive, Gattis called a running back screen and a third-and-21 run play. He didn't even give his senior quarterback a chance to throw the ball downfield to his future NFL receivers or draw a defensive penalty.
If Michigan's happy settling for field goals against Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, it will lose all three games.
During Illinois' 25-0 run, Michigan had a chance to perhaps put points on the board right before halftime. The Wolverines took over at the 25-yard line with 55 seconds left and all three timeouts remaining. That's plenty of time to at least get into long field goal range, especially against Illinois' defense.
But Harbaugh had no interest in doing so. He ran the clock out and took a 28-7 lead into halftime. They'll never admit it, but Michigan's coaching staff appeared to believe they already had the game won. Clearly, that wasn't the case, and a team like Michigan, with so many areas to improve, can't afford to waste opportunities.
What if Michigan needs to score in a two-minute drill later this season? What if a field goal at the end of regulation could win a game late against Notre Dame or Michigan State?
It was foolish for Michigan to waste an opportunity at the end of the first half and it nearly came back to bite the Wolverines.