CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The No. 10-ranked University of Michigan football team won its 19th consecutive Big Ten Conference opener, coming from behind to beat No. 19 Illinois 35-31 on Saturday evening (Sept. 23) at Memorial Stadium. The Wolverines (3-1) ended the Fighting Illini's seven-game winning streak dating back to last year, and in the process picked up the 799th victory in the 121-year history of the program.
In a battle pitting the Big Ten's top two rushing teams, the Wolverines won the ground war with 341 rushing yards on 55 carries. Senior tailback Anthony Thomas (Winnfield, La./Winnfield HS) gained a career-high 228 yard rushing on 35 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown on a three-yard run with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter. Thomas, who scored two touchdowns, has gained 100 or more rushing yards in each of the four games this season.
Quarterback Drew Henson (Brighton, Mich./Brighton HS) made his season debut late in the first half and led the comeback win by completing 8-of-17 passing attempts for 141 yards and one TD. Henson rushed four times for 23 yards and scored on an eight-yard, third-quarter run. Junior split end David Terrell (Richmond, Va./Huguenot HS) caught a season-best six passes for 116 yards and scored on a 57-yard TD pass from Henson in the fourth quarter.
Michigan took the opening kickoff at its 20-yard line and moved to its 41-yard line before Illinois forced a punting situation. The Wolverines' 11-play scoring drive was kept alive as senior/junior long snapper Jeremy Miller (Toledo, Ohio/St. John's HS) flicked the ball to junior tailback Walter Cross (Fort Washington, Md./Oxon Hill HS) in the upback postion. Cross took the ball straight up the middle for a 41-yard gain to the Illinois 18-yard line. Redshirt freshman quarterback John Navarre (Cudahy, Wis./Cudahy HS) hit junior flanker Marquise Walker (Syracuse, N.Y./Henninger HS) for a 10-yard gain to the two-yard line on a critical third-and-four play, and Thomas scored the touchdown on the very next play.
The Fighting Illini tied the score with 11:21 remaining in the second quarter as tailback Antoineo Harris scored from three yards away. The scoring play came immediately after junior punter Hayden Epstein (Cardiff, Calif./Torrey Pines HS) was unable to handle the snap in the end zone and punted left-footed for a negative eight yards to the three-yard line.
Illinois proceeded to grab a 14-7 lead as tailback Rocky Harvey scored on a six-yard run. The five-play scoring drive was keyed by a 58-yard pass from quarterback Kurt Kittner to flanker Aaron Mooehead to the U-M six-yard line. Kittner kept the drive alive with a nine-yard, third-down pass to Harvey, then found Moorehead streaking down the right side of the field.
With 1:42 remaining in the first half, Henson made his season debut after missing the first three games with a right foot injury. Henson proceeded to move U-M into scoring territory but Epstein pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide left. Henson completed a nine-yard pass to Walker on first down and tossed an 11-yard pass to cornerback/wide receiver James Whitley (Norfolk, Va./Norview HS) on the next play to move the ball into Illinois territory at the 47-yard line. After an incomplete pass, Henson hit Thomas for a 14-yard completion and then scrambled 11 yards to the Fighting Illini 23-yard line. Michigan had first-and-goal at the 10-yard line after a three-yard pass from Henson to Terrell and a nine-yard run by Thomas, but Henson threw three consecutive incomplete pass and the Wolverines were forced to attempt the field goal.
Illinois took the second half kickoff and gained a 14-point advantage as Kittner completed a 15-yard pass to tight end Josh Whitman. The 10-play scoring drive for the Fighting Illini was balanced, with Kittner completing 4-of-5 passing attempts for 34 yards and tailback Jameel Cook (two for 11) and Harris (three for 18 yards) adding 31 yards on the ground. Illinois moved 63 yards in 4:13 after Cook returned the kickoff 18 yards.
Michigan trimmed the deficit to seven points as Henson ran up the middle for an eight-yard touchdown on third-and-seven from the Illinois eight-yard line. Henson completed 3-of-5 passing attempts for 47 yards and gained 10 rushing yards on the 12-play scoring drive that covered 80 yards. Henson kept the drive going with a two-yard keeper on fourth-and-inches at the U-M 44-yard line and put the Wolverines in scoring territory with a 38-yard pass to Terrell on third down. After the play to Terrell put the ball on Illinois' 11-yard line, Thomas gained three yards on first down before Henson eventually scored on the third-down scamper. Thomas added 23 yards on five carries during the drive.
The Fighting Illini regained their double-digit cushion (24-14) as placekicker Steve Fitts connected on a 24-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Illinois moved down the field in 10 plays and gained 76 yards, with Kittner completing 4-of-5 passing attempts for 63 yards.
Michigan struck quickly as Henson found Terrell down the right side for a 57-yard touchdown pass to trim the Illinois lead to 24-21. The scoring drive took three plays, with freshman Chris Perry (Advence, N.C./Fork Union Military, Va.) rushing for 23 and two yards on the first two plays of the drive.
Illinois responded with a seven-play scoring drive that consumed 3:19 of the clock. The 80-yard drived ended with a Kittner 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric McGoey.
The Wolverines continued to fight and were rewarded as Perry scored on a 15-yard touchdown run to cut Illinois lead to 31-28. Sophomore fullback B.J. Askew (Cincinnati, Ohio/Colerain HS) took the short kickoff and returned it 25 yards to the 50-yard line. Michigan started the drive at the Illinois 45-yard line after a five-yard incidental face mask was called against the Illini on the return. Thomas (two carries for 25 yards) and Perry (two for 20) gained all the yards on the drive, while Henson tossed an incomplete pass.
Michigan got the opportunity it needed as Illinois' Harvey was hit by junior/sophomore linebacker Victor Hobson (Mt. Laurel, N.J./St. Josephs Prep) and fumbled. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Norman Boebert (Peoria, Ariz./Cactus HS) recovered at the Illinois 26-yard line.
The Wolverines gave the Fighting Ilini a heavy dose of Thomas on the ensuing drive as he rushed for six yards on first down, gained 17 more on second down, and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a three-yard run.
Illinois started to mount a drive but it abruptly came to an end as Cook took a screen pass and was hit by junior cornerback Todd Howard (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook HS), who forced a fumble that was recovered by junior linebacker Larry Foote (Detroit, Mich./Pershing HS). The Wolverines gained one first down and ran out the remaining 1:59 for their 19th consecutive win in a conference opener.
After a two consecutive weeks on the road, the Wolverines return to Michigan Stadium next Saturday (Sept. 30) against Wisconsin. The battle between the Wolverines and Badgers will kick off at noon EDT on ABC Sports.
Contact: David Ablauf, Jim Schneider (734) 763-4423