ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan has gotten good at focusing on each opponent, avoiding the tendency some teams have of overlooking inferior opponents.
Illinois provides another opportunity, especially with the Wolverines’ game next week against rival Michigan State on the road and next month’s showdown at No. 2 Ohio State.
The third-ranked Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) are favored to rout the Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2) by more than five touchdowns. When they’ve been favorites by a lot of points this season, they’ve usually delivered. The latest example came in Michigan’s last game when it was expected to win at Rutgers by nearly four touchdowns and ended up winning 78-0.
Jim Harbaugh, though, looks and sounds the same every week. Whether his team is preparing to play the Scarlet Knights, or a ranked team such as Wisconsin, he beats the same drum publicly and privately.
Even though Illinois appears to pose no threat to spoiling the Wolverines’ potentially special season, you wouldn’t know it by listening to Harbaugh.
“It’ll be a challenge,” he said. “A championship-type football game for our team.”
Here are some things to watch when Michigan hosts Illinois on Saturday:
THE COMEBACK: Michigan linebacker Mike McCray has been one of the top players on a highly touted defense, making 32 tackles, including five for losses, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. McCray, a senior, hadn’t started a game until this year’s opener against Hawaii. He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
“It’s a lot different now,” McCray said. “I feel a lot better. I’m not down or anything on myself.”
BACKFIELD BY COMMITTEE: Illinois’ best bet to move the ball has been its running game. The Illini are averaging 189.8 yards rushing, primarily due to the work of tailbacks Reggie Corbin, Kendrick Foster and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn went into the season as the starter, a job that the freshman Corbin has taken over. All three share time in the backfield. The top producer so far has been Foster, who has run for 384 yards — 6.2 per carry — with five rushing touchdowns and two more receiving.
“We have like a three-headed monster in the backfield,” Foster said. “We all bring something from speed to wiggle to explosiveness.”
NO OFFENSE: History will be made at the Big House when Harbaugh and first-year coach Lovie Smith become the first college coaches to face each other after leading teams to the Super Bowl. In their only previous NFL matchup, Harbaugh helped San Francisco beat the Smith-led Chicago Bears 32-7 in 2012. When asked about matching up with Smith again, Harbaugh couldn’t recall the game in which Colin Kaepernick made his first start for the 49ers.
“I don’t remember any meetings we had in NFL,” Harbaugh said.
TAKEAWAYS: Smith came to Illinois preaching the takeaway philosophy his Bears teams relied on and the Illini are tied for fourth in the country in turnover margin at plus-eight. The five turnovers Illinois forced in last Saturday’s win over Rutgers were a big difference in the game.
“We’ve got to keep building on that,” Smith said. “That’s a part of our DNA.”
THREE AND OUT: Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers-led defense leads the nation in six categories, including how it fares on third downs. Teams are converting just 12.2 percent of third downs against the Wolverines this season.
“It takes all 11 playing well together,” Harbaugh said. “Stopping the run on third and short yardage situation, pass-rush, tackling, not allowing yards after contract, not allowing yards after shorter passes, defending deeper balls.”