Just a few weeks ago, the Illinois State game was supposed to be a test for the No. 3 Michigan football team heading into the game. While the Wolverines barely handled their Big Ten competition on a weekly basis, the Fighting Illini looked tough. Heading into Week 10, Illinois was 7-1 and poised to run away with the Big Ten West.

But the bottom fell out for Illinois in the last two games. Back-to-back home losses against Michigan State and Purdue left the Illini reeling, suddenly locked in a four-way tie for first place in their division.

Regardless, Michigan can’t overlook Illinois and its strong rushing attack. The Wolverines made it clear before the season that beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten are two of their biggest goals. Accomplishing those tasks, however, becomes a lot more difficult if they slip through this weekend.

As Michigan prepares for its final game in the Big House this season, The Daily breaks down three things to keep an eye on:

Can the defense contain Chase Brown?

Michigan has improved its running game week after week, but the Illini have built their offense on a similar plan. Running back Chase Brown leads the nation with 1,442 yards this season. Brown limped against the Boilermakers but is expected to play this weekend, and if he goes down, Illinois’ offense will become a lot more dangerous.

“Our run wall was really good,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “It will be tested this week, probably like no other to this point. Illinois is very strong at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Excellent, outstanding running scheme, outstanding running back. So it will be a real challenge.”

The Wolverines have been up to the challenge so far, holding back rushing attacks all season. They currently boast the No. 1 defense in the nation, allowing just 72.7 yards per game on the ground. But the Illini, who are averaging 183.6 yards rushing, have found ways to move the ball year-round with little resistance — so something’s got to give.

The last time Michigan faced this level of talent was against Penn State and its pair of freshmen. The defense held the duo to just 35 yards combined in that game.

If Illinois wants to stay in the game, a good formula for doing so is to sustain hard rush drives. However, if the Wolverines’ front seven can dominate at the line of scrimmage, the Illini will struggle to move the ball. Ultimately, this game will be won in the trenches.

Can the passing game begin?

Last week, after sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy had another lackluster passing game, players and coaches insisted the pressure was a pressure in practice and just hadn’t found its way into the game yet. But with just two weeks left in the regular season, it’s safe to wonder if that moment will ever come.

Michigan knows they can run the ball and don’t need to rely on his passing. It’s a formula that worked last year as well, and the Wolverines don’t seem particularly concerned about deviating from that plan.

“It’s just kind of the feel of the game,” Michigan co-offensive coordinator Sharon Moore said Wednesday. “You come into the game and you run the ball and (get) five yards on a carry and six and seven and eight and nine, it’s like, why do anything else?”

That stubbornness has worked so far. The Wolverines, however, could benefit from a contingency plan. Against Illinois State, which is allowing just 85.9 rushing yards per game, they may face more resistance in the running game than they are used to. If junior running back Blake Corum can’t get going like usual, the onus is on McCarthy to move the ball through the air.

“We feel like we’re going to do everything we can to win — run, throw,” Moore said. “We feel like we can be balanced in all areas and we’re just going to continue to do our best to go 11-0 this week.”

Michigan doesn’t need to play a perfect game this week to reach the 11-win mark. But whether McCarthy can finally connect to the big games will have an impact on the Wolverines’ offensive prospects going forward.

Will Michigan get caught before The Game?

This is the elephant in the room.

Michigan and Ohio State have been on a collision course all season heading into a colossal tilt on November 26th. If both teams take care of their business this weekend, it will be an undefeated matchup for the first time since 2006 – and it also has major implications for the College Football Playoff.

But none of that matters if the Wolverines are caught looking ahead. If Michigan comes out flat-footed, already focused on next week, Illinois will have time to take advantage.

“(Ohio State) is a team that we think about all the time, but to me it’s not who we’re playing this week at all,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said Wednesday. “We have a top college football rusher coming here to our stadium on Saturday. And now he has our full attention.”

It looks like the Wolverines are in the right space for their matchup. But once the game starts, it can be a different story. Slow starts have already plagued the Wolverines throughout the season, requiring strong second halves to push forward. Those problems could be magnified with the upcoming standoff in Columbus.

If all goes according to plan, Michigan will win with relative ease on Saturday. But if the team settles on the idea of ​​going to Columbus undefeated — before that proposition actually materializes — it could be in trouble.

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