CHAMPAIGN — Almost nothing went right for Illinois in the first 30 minutes of Saturday's game against No. 16 Michigan.
The offense was anemic and went three-and-out on five of its first seven possessions and punting on all seven. Defensively, things were worse, much worse.
The Wolverines entered Memorial Stadium desperately seeking an opportunity to get its own offense back on track, and that opportunity came against an Illinois defense that's handed out road maps to opposing offenses looking for the way.
Michigan jumped up 28-0 behind a suffocating defense and a running game for which the Illini had no answer. Even by the results in Illinois head coach Lovie Smith's four-year tenure, things were bleak.
Then all of a sudden, things were less bleak. Illinois rattled off 25 straight points, the defense forced a punt or a turnover on four straight possessions (save for the end of the first half where Michigan ran the clock out), the offense made big plays behind backup quarterback Matt Robinson and Illinois was within three points early in the fourth.
Fumbles ended two straight Illini offensive possessions after that and Michigan capitalized to pull away in the final eight minutes for a 42-25 win at Memorial Stadium.
Maybe there's a middle ground to find between Illinois' (2-4) ability to reel of 25 straight points behind backup, redshirt freshman Matt Robinson making his first career start at quarterback, and not crossing the finish line for a marquee win over Michigan after a dismal start while allowing a total for 489 yards of offense.
Down 28-0 in the first half and 28-7 in the locker room at halftime, Illinois had to find out who it was and who it wanted to be for the final 30 minutes. Smith called it a "gut check."
"We had to decide what we wanted to do," Smith said. "We chose to fight harder. It’s always tough when you lose a ball game. If you look at that moment, and to be able to play that type of football throughout, for 60 minutes, then we’re going to have something here."
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The same turnovers that ended up allowing Michigan to seal the game and escape Champaign with the win were exactly what got Illinois right back into the game. Illinois safety Stanley Green and linebacker Jake Hansen each forced a fumble and Green recovered both. Illinois scored eight points off the turnovers and suddenly things were in the hands of an offense that started moving.
Robinson led the offense, going 16-of-25 for 192 yards and a touchdown and played mistake-free before his two fourth-quarter fumbles. He made his first career start because starter Brandon Peters is in concussion protocol, causing him to miss the chance to play his former team.
All things considered, against a defense that entered the game ranked fifth in the Big Ten for total defense, Robinson played well. But Illinois couldn't take the final step to put the game away.
“It’s definitely tough when you’re that close in the fourth quarter, three points, but then to come up short is definitely tough," Robinson said. "It’s something to build on, I think."
Robinson found receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe five times for 102 yards — Imatorbhebhe's first 100-yard game — and a touchdown, including a big 35-yard leaping catch down the sideline that led to an Illinois touchdown.
Initially, Robinson and freshman Isaiah Williams split series before Williams left with an injury and Robinson settled into the offense. For a lightly-recruited, under-sized quarterback in his first start, Robinson drew praise from Smith and his teammates for his composure.
“As we talk about being down 28 to 0, you know (Michigan is) going to pin their guys back and come," Smith said. "I though Matt was poised, composed and made plays when he needed to. Of course Josh Imatorbhebhe, seemed like whenever we go to him, we probably need to go to him more, it’s a tough matchup for a defensive back and he made plays."
All Illinois has to show for it's comeback effort that fell short is another number in the loss column, the fourth straight loss after a 2-0 start. It was another game they couldn't close out to get a marquee win — perhaps the best in Smith's tenure.
"I’m proud of the guys for fighting, but we know we have to finish," said running back Dre Brown. "We talked before the game how we had to get the game into the fourth quarter and we did that. Obviously, it wasn’t the plan to be 28-7 at halftime, but we got the game in the fourth quarter and gave ourselves a chance to win. Now we’ve got to finish."