Illini try to tie up Wolverines’ “Shoelace”

For the first five weeks of the season, Michigan’s Denard Robinson was the toast of college football. The sophomore quarterback was averaging nearly 400 yards of offense by himself and had accounted for 15 touchdowns, leading the Wolverines to a perfect 5-0 record and a No. 19 national ranking.

“We are playing arguably one of the best players in the country in Denard Robinson,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “A guy that every time he touches the ball, it kind of takes your breath.”

While Michigan has dropped three straight since their perfect start, Robinson is certainly not the reason. The player nicknamed “Shoelace” — he doesn’t tie his shoes during games — leads the nation in rushing yards and is second in total yards per game. Robinson’s 349.5 yards per game is more than the entire Illinois team, which has averaged 337.5 yards per game this season.

“If we could use 12 or 13 guys, I’d probably feel a little bit better,” Zook said. “We’ll need everybody … He’s got close to world-class speed and once again, we can’t catch him with a relay team.”

But despite all the hype surrounding Robinson, linebacker Nate Bussey said Illinois cannot forget about the other 10 players on Michigan’s offense.

“We’re going in with a game plan, not just preparing for Denard Robinson, but for Michigan’s offense,” Bussey said. “We’re going in hoping to do what we do every week: just play hard, play fast and play within the framework of our defense.”

But after coming off back-to-back games in which the defense held the opponent to 13 points or fewer, Zook said there couldn’t be a better time to face the challenge.

“They’ve risen to every test so far and there’s nothing not saying that they’re going to rise to it this time,” Zook said. “But I think they understand that they have to prepare and they’re going to have to work extremely hard.”

The offense will have its hands full as well as it faces the Wolverines defense, which runs an unconventional 3-3-5 scheme that includes five defensive backs and only three down lineman on most plays, a different look from what Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has seen throughout most of the season.

“It’s definitely a totally different defense than what we’ve seen all year,” Scheelhaase said. “Southern Illinois was really the only team that was more of a three-down-lineman scheme, but even Michigan does a lot of different things with bringing their safeties down and getting them involved.”

However, Scheelhaase is confident the Illini will put in enough work to solve the Wolverine defense.

“It’s definitely something that (offensive coordinator Paul) Petrino has really stressed to us, that we’ve gotta get in extra this week and watch even more film than we have previously,” Scheelhaase said. “The best thing about that is you prepare all week and you get that kind of locked in, and once it’s game time you’re going to feel comfortable about what you’ve done and you’ll feel comfortable about the opposing defense. Then you get to just go out there and play.”

One player looking to help Scheelhaase will be running back Mikel Leshoure, who is looking for his first 100-yard performance in four weeks after breaking the century mark in four of the team’s first five games.

“I’m definitely ready to have a big game,” Leshoure said. “But if it doesn’t happen and we get the win, I’m happy with that too … If defenses want to (stop me), then we’ll hurt them with other weapons like we did last week … We’ll just adjust.”