Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates a touchdown with tight end Nick Eubanks during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Champaign, Illinois. © Patrick Gorski, Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - It wasn't a loss.
But it hardly was an inspiring victory, either.
BOX SCORE: NO. 16 MICHIGAN 42, ILLINOIS 25
No. 16 Michigan football pulled out a closer-than-expected 42-25 win at Illinois on Saturday afternoon after allowing the Illini to score 25 consecutive points between the end of the first half and beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines (5-1, 3-1 Big Ten) were favored by more than 20 points, and they seemed to be on their way to covering, opening up a 28-point lead before halftime on the strength of a run game that piled up 205 yards rushing in the first half.
Everything was going well.
Until it wasn't.
In a stunning turnaround, Michigan was dominated on both sides of the ball in the third quarter. Illinois outgained the Wolverines 114-11, holding the ball for nearly 11 minutes and outscoring U-M 10-0.
Then the fourth quarter began with Michigan losing a fumble. The Illini gained 20 yards with a screen pass and punched in a touchdown. They converted a two-point try, and all of a sudden, the Wolverines' 28-point lead was down to three.
[ U-M's grades: Too many lapses allowed game to get close ]
Michigan was on the brink of collapse. A loss would've been detrimental and seemed like a possibility, given how poorly the Wolverines were playing.
U-M eventually found a way to pull out the win. On the ensuing possession, Shea Patterson led a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. Patterson used both his arm and his legs, picking up a key fourth down deep in Illinois territory with a four-yard run.
Michigan's defense forced turnovers on the ensuing two possessions and Illinois didn't score again.
U-M got off to a quick start, scoring touchdowns on four of its first six possessions mostly thanks to the run game. It took just one quarter for the Wolverines to eclipse their season average of 129 yards rushing; by halftime, they had 205, led by 108 from running back Zach Charbonnet.
The defense held Illinois scoreless on its first seven possessions.
The Illini broke the drought with a six-play, 67-yard drive at the end of the first half, capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. Imatorhbhebhe caused problems for Michigan's secondary all game long, leading all receivers with five catches for 102 yards and a score.
Illinois found success in the pass game by attacking the middle of the field and spreading out Michigan's defense. But the Wolverines came up with just enough big plays in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Cam McGrone forced a fumble, and on the next possession, Mike Danna sacked Matt Robinson and forced a fumble that Carlo Kemp recovered at the 1-yard line.
Michigan scored a touchdown on the next play, effectively putting away the game.
The Wolverines' offense is still inconsistent. During one stretch, Patterson completed just 1 of 7 passes for nine yards. The early success on the ground slowly went away; U-M rushed for just 92 yards in the second half. The defense, meanwhile, allowed four consecutive scoring drives at one point.
Michigan showed that it is still very much a work in progress. And at this point in the season, that might not be sufficient, with two upcoming games against top-10 opponents Penn State and Notre Dame.
Contact Orion Sang at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football avoids collapse, beats Illinois 42-25 in Champaign
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