Nation's sack leader Whitney Mercilus to lead Illinois' powerful pass rush against Michigan football team
The Illinois football team allows just 280.11 yards per game and is the sixth-ranked defense in the country. Not bad for a team that has lost three consecutive games.
Michigan (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) is at Illinois (6-3, 2-3) Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. game (ABC), and these three Illini players are the ones to watch in what is expected to be close game.
Size: 6-foot-3, 195 pounds
Hometown: Kansas City
Breakdown: Scheelhaase is a running quarterback, but has made dramatic strides this year in the passing game. Since adding arm strength as well as accuracy and becoming adept at the deep ball, Illinois has begun to open the playbook for Scheelhaase after limiting him early in his career. He now averages 8.2 yards per attempt, which is 22nd in the country. His quickness could be an issue for Michigan, which has struggled to contain outside runs this season.
Notable stats: Since the start of Big Ten play, he leads the conference in total offense (265.4 yards per game). In all games, he is fourth in total offense (243.1 yards per game) and third in passing (210.0). ... The running quarterback had a streak of nine consecutive Big Ten games with a touchdown pass snapped in his last game against Purdue. ... He accounted for 211 yards passing, 101 yards rushing and four touchdowns last year against Michigan. ... He was Big Ten freshman of the week six times last season.
Quote: "It’s hard having a bye week in the middle of the season, you know, you still feel like you’re in season. It’s just kind of weird. You still got two weeks until you play your next game. It’s still on your mind, you’re still ready to go, to get back out there." Scheelhaase, on preparing for Michigan during the Illini's off week last week, according to The Daily Illini
Position: Wide receiver
Size: 6-foot-1, 290 pounds
Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
Breakdown: Jenkins was a big-play nightmare for defenses during Illinois' six-game winning streak to open the season, but has been held to just three 20-yarders during the team's current three-game losing streak. Whether Michigan — which has been burned by several No. 1 receivers this year, including McNutt last week — can continue that trend will be a key. Illinois leans heavily on Jenkins (see stats below), so Michigan could shade toward him, although don't expect a straight double. Corners Blake Countess and J.T. Floyd will split time on Jenkins, with Countess getting a little more time of the two.
Notable stats: He has 68 catches for 1,030 yards. For perspective, the nearest Illini has 22 catches for 189 yards, and Michigan top receiver Junior Hemingway has 25 catches for 514 yards. ... His 11.4 receiving yards per game is ninth in the country. ... He is one of two receivers in the Big Ten to average more than 100 yards receiving per game (McNutt is the other). ... He had 12 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern in the Big Ten opener.
Quote: "We have some things that we have in mind for him, but for me to tell you we are going to double him or take him out of the game? I wish I could say yes on that.”— Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, on how he will defend Jenkins.
Position: Defensive end
Size: 6-foot-4, 265 pounds
Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Breakdown: Pick any defensive statistic, and Mercilus probably is at or near the top of the list. He's become a pass-rushing beast, despite losing the first knuckle of his left index finger during a freak weightlifting accident in April. Illinois' trainers doctored a glove to include a splint that replaces the knuckle. The junior is a strong candidate to leave school early and enter next year's NFL draft.
Notable stats: He leads the country in sacks with 11.5, and nearly doubles anyone else in the Big Ten. ... He leads the Big Ten with 16.5 tackles for loss (and is first among BCS schools) and six forced fumbles (double anyone in the Big Ten).
Quote: "I never would want to say that, I don’t believe I’ve had to say that yet, I don’t think that’s for me to decide." Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, on his reluctance to use a double-team against Mercilus.
Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.