Close call vs. Illinois highlights concerns for Michigan football heading into Ohio State game

Wolverines still need to improve in passing game, red zone offense

J.J. McCarthy #9 of the Michigan Wolverines passes against Jartavius Martin #21 of the Illinois Fighting Illini during the first half at Michigan Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Aaron J. Thornton, 2022 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan football found a way to survive Illinois over the weekend and remain undefeated, but the game once again highlighted some of the greatest concerns for the Wolverines heading into Ohio State week.

Saturday was Michigan’s first true test of adversity this season after leading for every single second of every fourth quarter in the previous 10 games. The Wolverines found themselves down seven points and punting the ball back to Illinois with the final seconds ticking off the third-quarter clock.

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But all that truly mattered in the end was finding a way to win, and that’s what Michigan did, putting together a trio of scoring drives and shutting down Illinois in the final 15 minutes.

Teams like Tennessee and North Carolina -- who both got knocked out of the playoff picture due to their second losses -- would have loved to come away with two-point wins this weekend. Heck, undefeated TCU has needed late comebacks to win half of its games.

Michigan ultimately took care of business. But the result won’t be the same this weekend if the Wolverines can’t fix a few key issues.

The elephant in the room for Michigan is the ineffectiveness of the passing attack. When Blake Corum went down with injury Saturday, Michigan was comfortably controlling the game. As soon as he left, the tide turned.

Blake Corum #2 of the Michigan Wolverines walks off the field after a 19-17 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini at Michigan Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

J.J. McCarthy struggled with accuracy once again, completing just 18 of 34 pass attempts and notably missing a wide open Colston Loveland in the red zone with a chance to take a late lead.

He was the most accurate passer in the country during the first half of the season, but McCarthy’s numbers have taken a downward turn in November. He’s completed just 39 of 78 attempts (50%) for 488 yards (6.3 per attempt).

The other major concern for Michigan is its red zone offense. While the Wolverines rank eighth in the nation in red zone scoring percentage, they’re way down at 59th in red zone touchdown percentage (64.4%).

Ohio State’s path to stopping Michigan is clear: Commit to shutting down the running game and force the Wolverines to make big plays through the air. They haven’t proven they can do it.

Michigan’s receivers aren’t creating separation downfield and haven’t been reliable catching the football when McCarthy is on target. That’s a bad combination heading into a game in which Michigan will need to score in the 30s or 40s to win.

Ohio State remembers better than anyone what Michigan did last year, so there’s no way new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is going to let that happen again. McCarthy and the receivers are going to have to keep the Buckeyes honest in the passing game, and lately, that has not been a strength.

The Wolverines are having another phenomenal season and are one of just four unbeatens left in the country. So as disappointing as the offense has been, there’s still plenty to like about this team.

But to win in Columbus, Michigan will have to be almost perfect. And the Illinois game suggests there’s still a long way to go.

Place kicker Jake Moody #13 and Kenneth Grant #78 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Michigan Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.