Illinois football keeps it close, falls late to Michigan in a heartstopping game

Junior+defensive+back+Devon+Witherspoon+on+the+field+during+the+second+half+of+the+game+against+MSU+on+Nov.+5.+

Sydney Laput

Junior defensive back Devon Witherspoon on the field during the second half of the game against MSU on Nov. 5.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

With their Big Ten West champion title dreams seemingly fleeting, Illinois(7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) traveled to undefeated No. 3 Michigan (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) for their penultimate regular season game. Despite facing one of the best defenses and running backs in the country, Illinois fought hard, finishing the game with a third-straight loss, 19-17.

Michigan started with the ball after a coin toss deferral by Illinois. Michigan running back Blake Corum and Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy made a depleted Illinois secondary work overtime, moving down the field on their first drive, going 75 yards on seven plays to go up early on Illinois.

Illinois’ defensive efficiency would improve throughout the rest of the quarter after returning to their more physical style of play. The Illinois offense would test the strengths and weaknesses of the Michigan defense, another top-ranked unit, gaining yardage with junior running back Chase Brown up the middle and finding receivers on the flat and along the sideline.

The Illini defense continued to bend and not break, keeping their offense in the game throughout the first half. Even though a false start on the Illini offense kept them from attempting a manageable fourth down, the gain of three increased the pressure on the Wolverine offense to increase their efficiency.

With the momentum of a fumble caused by freshman Xavier Scott deep in their own territory, Illinois managed to keep the game within their control.

The start of the first half couldn’t have started on the wrong foot for the Illini as, after a three-and-out by the offense, freshman punter Hugh Robertson shanked a punt that placed Michigan just across the midfield mark. The Illini defense held the Wolverines outside the red zone, their kicker hitting a 47-yarder to put the Wolverines back up by seven.

On the ensuing Illini drive, Brown started to find more openings in the Wolverine defensive line, pushing his team down the field. A downfield strike to senior tight end Michael Marchese to put them into the end zone from senior quarterback Tommy DeVito. Brown broke away from early tacklers for the score, tying the game for Illinois at 10.

Illinois stuck fast after the Michigan turnover on downs, hitting a deep ball to junior Casey Washington to cross midfield. Two plays later, Brown’s breakaway run finally came, rushing 37-yards down the field for a touchdown. The run tied him for most career 100-yard games in Illinois history.

The Michigan offense, without Corum’s presence and production, started to fall apart, never finding the red zone through the rest of the third quarter. Michigan found itself down in the fourth quarter for the first time this season, adding to the anxiety of a back-and-forth game.

The Wolverines brought it within four after a field goal early in the fourth quarter after a solid punt return. Illinois started to work the game in their favor, controlling the time of possession and maintaining a clean pocket for DeVito to throw in, something they’ve struggled with in the last few weeks. Illinois would turn the ball over on downs on a fourth-and-eight, giving Michigan the chance to lead late in the game.

Michigan began to march down the field, finding passes to Michigan tight end Colston Loveland and wide receiver Cornelius Johnson. With fourth and four at the Illini 23-yard line, McCarthy hit wide receiver Roman Wilson for nine yards, giving them a fresh set of downs in the red zone. The Wolverines were stopped by the Illini defense once again, settling for a field goal to make it a one point game.

A holding call brought back Illinois offensively from a close fourth down play to a long and third. The Illinois offense would once again ask their defense to hold on. They wouldn’t be given a great set up as Robertson would send another bad punt to Michigan after an unlucky bounce.

After finding themselves in another fourth down situation, Michigan converted, with their next pass drawing a pass interference penalty to get them solidly in field goal range. With 13 seconds left in the game, the Michigan kicker marched on the field to make a 35-yard field goal.

Despite the long and hard-fought effort by Illinois, they were unable to make the plays necessary in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

The Illini travel to Evanston to fight for the Land of Lincoln Trophy on September 26.

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