A hush took over the Big House crowd, packed into Michigan Stadium on Saturday for senior day.
The hope for fans, initially, was the chance to get to send Michigan football out of its final home game in 2022 with momentum.
Instead, all the focus was on star running back Blake Corum, young quarterback JJ McCarthy and avoiding a near-stunning upset, as Wolverines kicker Jake Moody hit three field goals in the fourth quarter — the final one with nine seconds left — to give UM a slim 19-17 victory over Illinois.
SHAWN WINDSOR:Michigan escapes vs. Illinois. Ohio State next. Let the hype begin.
SHORT-HANDED:Michigan without RB Donovan Edwards for home finale
Corum, Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate in the backfield, left late in the first half after suffering an apparent leg injury. He returned in the third quarter for one carry for five yards, but had to leave the game and would not return. He finished with 18 carries for 108 yards and a score and two catches for 39 yards.
His departure seemingly sucked the juice from the stadium.
To make matters worse, Corum fumbled on the carry on which he was injured, for his first fumble of the year, deep in Illini territory in the final two minutes of the first half.
In the second half, Illinois scored on an 8-yard run by Chase Brown — the first second-half touchdown allowed by the Wolverines since Oct. 1. Michigan dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown on fourth down on its next trip and the Illini needed just three plays to score their second touchdown of the day, again by Brown, and put the Wolverines in a 17-10 hole.
Brown, the nation’s leading rusher, had temporarily stolen the show in Ann Arbor, running 29 times for 140 yards and two scores against the top-ranked run defense in the country.
But the Wolverines didn’t fold on defense, and after three stops of the Illini, they put the ball in the hands — or rather, on the feet — of Jake Moody, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best college kicker.
He delivered three kicks in the fourth quarter despite frigid temperatures and gusty winds (although they were at his back in the final stanza). His final boot, good from 35 yards, propelled Michigan (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) past Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) and into its de facto Big Ten East championship game still undefeated.
The final drive
Trailing by one, Michigan got the ball back with 2:15 left in the game and no timeouts remaining. After a quick out-route to Cornelius Johnson gained 3, quarterback JJ McCarthy kept the ball for a gain of four. Tavierre Dunlap was stuffed for no gain on the next play, bringing up fourth-and-3 with a running clock and the game on the line.
McCarthy found fourth-string running back Isaiah Gash on a flat route behind a blocking Colston Loveland to pick up the first down. McCarthy targeted Ronnie Bell on the next pass, which fell incomplete, but the Illini were flagged for pass interference to give Michigan a fresh set of downs on the Illinois 22.
Michigan gained five more yards on its next three plays, before an incompletion sent Moody onto the field for his final try.
When Illinois stole the momentum
For a long time in Saturday’s second half, it looked as if the Wolverines were indeed caught in a classic “trap game.” Facing an Illinois squad that had dropped its previous two games to seriously dent its Big Ten West chances, the Wolverines struggled right away on offense.
With just a four-point lead coming out of halftime, the pressure was on for the Wolverines to replicate previous games’ second-half success — Michigan had outscored opponents 117-3 in the third and fourth quarters over the past five games — but it didn’t happen early.
After forcing a three-and-out on the Illini’s possession to open the third, Michigan took over near midfield but did not take full advantage. After a 14-yard first-down pass to Johnson, the drive fizzled and the Wolverines settled for a 45-yard Moody field goal through the swirling wind.
Illinois then went to work. After Brown ripped off a gain of 11, Michigan was flagged for too many men on the field, moving the ball into Wolverines territory. A pass from the 17 from Tommy DeVito to Michael Marchese got Illinois inside the red zone for the first time on the day, before Brown ripped off an 8-yard score on third-and-2.
Michigan picked up two first downs on its next drive, both on third-down conversions — a 9-yard run by CJ Stokes on third-and-5 and then a 20-yard pass to Isaiah Gash on a screen pass on third-and -10.
Facing fourth-and-7 from the Illinois 37, coach Jim Harbaugh left his offense on the field. McCarthy, who expected an offsides flag on the defense, lofted a ball deep down the left sideline to Andrel Anthony, but the ball bounced off his hands and fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.
Illinois’ next three plays: DeVito to Casey Washington for 16, DeVito to Brown for 10 and then Brown for 37 on the ground up the right sideline for the score — suddenly, Michigan trailed by a touchdown for the first time all season.
Wolverines claw back
After a three-and-out by the offense, boos rained down from the stands at the Big House. But the Wolverines’ defense and special teams persevered.
Illinois’ ensuing drive moved backward from midfield, stymied by a fumbled snap on third-and-8 by DeVito in the shotgun formation. He chased down the ball and fell on it for a loss of 11 yards, forcing an Illini punt from their own 34, and potentially solid field position for UM.
Ronnie Bell, on special teams in place of the injured AJ Henning (who didn’t suit up Saturday), made an electric play on the punt return, breaking two tackles and scampering up the right sideline 39 yards to start the Wolverines in Illinois territory . But the stagnant offense managed just one first down and had to settle for another Moody field goal, from 41 yards out to make it 17-13.
Illinois, looking to put the game away, drove 42 yards into Michigan territory, reaching the UM 33. Too close for a punt, but too far for a field goal, Illinois coach Bret Bielema kept his offense on the field on fourth-and -7. With no receivers open, DeVito scrambled, only to be brought down by DJ Turner after a 2-yard gain.
Finally, the Wolverines’ offense began to deliver. On third-and-8 with just under six minutes remaining, McCarthy picked up a fumbled snap, rolled right and completed an 11-yard pass to Johnson for a first down. Four plays later, on fourth-and-4, McCarthy found Roman Wilson, in motion on the play, for a gain of nine.
Two incompletions followed — a drop by Gash of a potential touchdown, and then a miss of a wide-open Loveland with the end zone in his sights — and Michigan settled for a 33-yard field goal from Moody to make it 17-16 with 3:14 to play.
Michigan then forced a three-and-out, while using all three timeouts, to give the offense — well, Moody — one last chance.