Michigan didn't need 67 points to beat Illinois this time around. The Wolverines didn't require 57, for that matter. Or 47. Or 37. Or 27. Or 17. Or seven.
They just needed one, impossible as that may be. As more than 110,000 fans trudged through puddles out of a saturated Michigan Stadium, they understood something, without a doubt.
This is Michigan. Again.
It's not that beating Illinois 45-0 counts as some meteoric rise into dominance by the Wolverines. The Illini face more problems than an arthritic sumo wrestler in a footrace with Denard Robinson these days.
Tim Beckman's team entered the game last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, last in the league in scoring defense, and beset by rumblings of transition discontent. When they lost starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase early in the second quarter, they stood as much chance of staying in the game as Red Grange did of coming back to play in it.
At the same time, one week earlier, this same Illinois team entered the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium trailing Wisconsin by a field goal, 10-7. The defending Big Ten champions needed a fourth-quarter outburst to put the Illini away.
Michigan didn't. It started squeezing the Illini like python on a rabbit from the opening series, and never let up. The Wolverines were supposed to beat this team, and left no trace of doubt.
Just like a week earlier against Purdue, there weren't any hold-your-breath moments against one of Michigan's historical inferiors. The all-time record (now 69-23-2) says the Wolverines are supposed to smack down a sub-par Illinois squad like a grizzly swatting salmon.
That's exactly what they did. And for Michigan fans, it just feels so right.
Once again, the Wolverines are flexing defensive muscle, showing offensive explosiveness, and seemingly getting better by the week, following some exasperating early struggles. In a bad Big Ten, they should more than hold their own.
So far, so good, for a team fully expecting to win.
"Every game you come in expecting to win," Robinson assured. "If you walk on the field and you think you're going to lose, you're going to lose. For my sake, I always expect to win."
Okay, fair enough. But there's a mighty big chasm between expectations of winning that are grounded in reality or treading water in hope.
During Robinson's first two seasons in a Michigan uniform, he expected to win every game as well. It's just that he was surprised more than half the time.
For the last year and a half, it's been a dramatically different story. Michigan's 11-2 season a year ago, fueled by its jump from No. 108 to No. 6 in scoring defense nationally, sent a clear signal.
Rocky non-conference moments aside, the Wolverines are beginning to follow up that breakthrough with an effort reconfirming what's transpiring inside Schembechler Hall. Sure, if U-M plays the No. 1 team in the land, it's not there yet. Yes, if the Wolverines stumble into an aberrant half-dozen turnovers, they're going to lose.
Barring 'Bama or abundant blunders, though, they can play with anyone the Big Ten runs onto the field this year, led by a defense beginning to hit its stride.
Toss out the crimson crusher in the season opener, and Michigan is yielding just under 13 points per game. They've seen impressive growth out of a defensive line that stepped in cold for the departed heart and soul of last year's effort by coordinator Greg Mattison's crew.
They're seeing redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan looking like the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews in roaming the field and terrorizing quarterbacks. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens enjoyed perhaps the best game of his career against Illinois, with his first career interception.
It happened, Hoke insisted, because Demens prepared like a champion. There's a lot of that going around Schembechler Hall these days, defenders knowing what's coming before the snap and offensive performers adjusting away from the grating giveaway in South Bend.
"We're just feeding off each other," noted linebacker Desmond Morgan, looking positively presidential in his newly granted No. 48. "We have confidence in our offense, and they're putting confidence in us defensively. We've got confidence in one another, and that's what's jelling this team together right now."
The next step, of course, looms larger than all those taken thus far. The Wolverines weren't talking about the Spartans much after the Illinois game. They'd rather do their talking through a result maddeningly missing in the series the past four years.
The Spartans desperately desire to continue what many fanaticized as the new reality. They'll do their head-twisting, arm-barring, eye-gouging darnedest to maintain what they scooped up when Michigan football went away.
But Michigan football is coming back - in recruiting, in defense, in hammering the teams it's supposed to hammer. The Wolverines would take a one-point win over Michigan State at this point, no questions asked.
That said, a bigger answer is forming, one that goes beyond the next week, the next two weeks, and the next two months.
There's a Michigan standard, and you either meet it or you don't, Hoke said this week. The Wolverines aren't there yet
but they're not hoping to win shootouts over Purdue and Illinois, either.
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