Alex Hickey: Michigan's rally over Illinois serves as an ideal dress rehearsal for Ohio State
There will likely be a point of view shared from Toledo and points southward that Michigan’s struggle to sneak past Illinois on Saturday is a sign that the Buckeyes will be blowing the doors off the Wolverines next week.
To the contrary, Michigan’s 19-17 escape over the Illini on Jake Moody’s 35-yard field goal with 9 seconds left is the best thing that could have happened to the Wolverines the week before The Game.
Heading into Saturday, Michigan led every single minute it played in the fourth quarter this season.
That’s a good thing on the road to earning the No. 3 ranking in the country. But in order to win a national championship, there will inevitably come a time where the circumstances won’t be so friendly. And Michigan is fortunate that JJ McCarthy’s first career fourth-quarter comeback opportunity was at home against Illinois rather than at Ohio State.
If this same scenario played out a week from now — Michigan down a touchdown in the final quarter for the first time — it would be difficult to like the Wolverines’ chances. Not against the Buckeyes. Not in front of 105,000 screaming fans.
If that scenario arises, McCarthy just needs to think back to his composure from the prior week rather than digging into his memory banks for some high school comeback.
This serves Michigan far better than a blowout covering the 18-point spread would have.
McCarthy, as some of us expected, experienced some struggles against Illinois’ aggressive man-to-man coverage. He was 18-of-34 (53%) for 208 yards. On throws more than 5 yards downfield, McCarthy was 6-of-17 for 70 yards.
But McCarthy did what he needed to on the game’s biggest play, finding 4th-string running back Isaiah Gash out of the backfield for 8 yards on a fourth-and-3 at the Illini 45. An Illinois stop would have ended the game.
McCarthy wasn’t the only Wolverine to prove himself in the clutch.
Jake Moody: A college kicker you can trust
College kickers have their own Twitter hashtag, and it is not meant as a compliment. Elsewhere in the Big Ten, we saw how erratic college kicking can be Saturday. The Michigan State-Indiana game went to double overtime because both kickers had field goals blocked in the first OT.
Jake Moody, on the other hand, is an ultra-reliable piece of Michigan’s offense.
Admittedly, Moody is probably too big a piece.
Despite having the nation’s best offensive line, Michigan is 38th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. The Wolverines have scored touchdowns on 64.4% of their trips inside the 20.
But Moody is a fail-safe to make sure Michigan rarely leaves the red zone empty-handed. Thanks to his reliability, the Wolverines are 5th nationally with a 94.5% red zone scoring percentage.
When Jim Harbaugh elects to take the points, he knows he’s getting them.
That’s why Michigan elected to kick a field goal when it was down 17-13 with only 3:14 left to play. Harbaugh knew his chances were better trusting Moody to kick a field goal, his defense to get a stop, and then Moody kicking another field goal than they were picking up a fourth-and-11 at the Illinois 15.
Harbaugh was right. And everything went according to plan.
When you trust all 3 phases of your team to collaborate for a win, it goes a long way in fortifying that team’s confidence for the challenges that lie ahead.
A pity for Illinois
Michigan’s College Football Playoff odds got an additional boost from essentially removing Illinois from Big Ten championship game contention.
As Michigan fans and the rest of the country witnessed Saturday afternoon, Bret Bielema handcrafted a team perfectly suited for taking down the Wolverines.
Illinois’ secondary challenged McCarthy more than any he’s faced so far. The Illini also had the right offensive formula to keep Michigan’s offense off the field, though they squandered their chance to go up 2 scores early in the fourth quarter and potentially put the game in an Anaconda grip.
Illinois was not a team that Michigan likely wanted to see twice in 3 weeks. With their performance in Ann Arbor, the Illini made it clear that they are the top team in the Big Ten West.
But due to their performances against Purdue and Michigan State the previous 2 weeks, it’s highly unlikely Illinois gets to Indianapolis. If Michigan gets past Ohio State, it will likely earn a title game matchup against a team it should handle with ease.
Michigan fans may have preferred style points on Saturday. But 2 points were plenty.
The biggest game of the season looms. And after their survival instincts kicked in against Illinois, the Wolverines are more than ready for it.