CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Michigan spent the past week talking about last Saturday’s upset loss at Iowa, a bad surprise they vowed not to let hurt them this week at Illinois.
But for the Illini (6-3, 2-3 Big Ten) the loss that dominated talk this week in Champaign happened a year ago, a 67-65 triple-overtime heart-breaker in Ann Arbor that the Illini can’t quite let go of.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase remembers getting knocked to the ground as his pass attempt for a two-point conversion failed. The roar of 111,000 fans confirmed for him that the game was over.
“You remember it and you do what you can to not feel that way again, that’s for sure,” the sophomore said. “It’ll be fun to look back on in 20 years, but not so much a year later.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, a 23-year coaching veteran, puts the loss to the Wolverines among his two worst days in the game, alongside a 66-14 loss to Texas Tech when he was an assistant two years ago at Kansas State.
“Mind boggling,” he calls the games, remembering score after score after score that his usually stubborn defenses were powerless to stop.
One of the architects of Koenning’s maize-and-blue nightmare will be running the offense for No. 22 Michigan (7-2, 3-2) Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Denard Robinson threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 71 on a day when the teams combined for more than 1,200 yards. This season, he’s averaging 97.8 rushing yards _ fifth in the Big Ten _ and is passing for 179.7 a game.
The coordinator has prepared the Illini defense for an offense that, in some ways, he says, has few tendencies. The information he’s gathered on Michigan, Koenning said, doesn’t point to any one, two or three things the Wolverines like to do.
“Page after page after page of they run this one time; it’s just a maze of one time this, one time this, one time that.”
And he talks, and has for weeks, like a man genuinely worried that somehow this Saturday could turn into a replay of the one last fall.
But on Saturday, Illinois will see a very different Michigan team than the one they fell just short against in 2010.
First-year head coach Brady Hoke this week sounded like a coach whose offense isn’t capable of the kind of outburst that won last year’s game over Illinois. He answered questions about Robinson’s limitations this season as the offense has changed, and about a lack of big Wolverine plays and whether or not the team can win without them.
“I think sometimes, you can. It depends on what kind of game you’ve got going on,” he said.
In Hoke’s offensive system, Robinson’s big-game run threat has been limited. Nine games in, the quarterback’s 880 yards are nice, but less than half of the 1,702 he had in 2010.
“I think it’s a combination of what people are giving us and allowing us to do,” Hoke said. “But he’s still a major factor.”
While the offense isn’t likely to score 67 points, this Wolverines defense doesn’t look as if it has a 65-point day in it, either.
Michigan this season is allowing about 15 points a game, less than half of last season’s 35. And it’ll be facing an Illini offense that hasn’t scored in the first half in three games _ all losses that have dragged Illinois down from unbeaten and nationally ranked to also-ran within their own conference.
The defense, defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said, has made big stops a priority this season and it’s paid off.
The 24-16 loss to Iowa offers a good example.
Down 17-6 at halftime, Michigan had little room for error in the second half. The defense responded, giving up one second-half touchdown and quickly shutting down the Hawkeyes on their four other possessions. None of them lasted more than five plays and two were three-and-outs.
“I think our mentality is just different than what it has been in years past,” Van Bergen said. “Coaches kind of allow us as defensive linemen, me and Mike (Martin), to pin our ears back and go.”
“When we get to third and short, fourth and one,” he added, “we feel very confident that no team is going to run for that yard on us.”
In last season’s win over Illinois, the Wolverines didn’t have many of those kinds of stops, but they did have the one that mattered most, at the goal line on the last play of overtime.
After a touchdown run pulled Illinois within two points, Scheelhaase dropped to throw on the conversion attempt but, under heavy pressure, wound up flinging a desperation pass that fell to the turf.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino says now he knew Michigan would come with an all-out blitz, and called a play with that in mind and saw a receiver pop open in the back of the end zone. But Scheelhaase never had time to find him.
The Illini didn’t have a better day offensively in 2010, but it didn’t count for a thing.
“That two-point play probably haunts me more than anything,” Petrino said. “It feels like crap if you lost _ it doesn’t matter how many points you score.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report
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