Ann Arbor — Jake Moody talked about those nights when he struggled to fall asleep and started playing out different spade scenarios, like making the winning spade.
In all his years as a kicker, the Northville native had never been in this position.
But with nine seconds remaining, Moody’s fourth field goal of the game was the winner, a 35-year-old that lifted Michigan to a 19-17 win over Illinois on Saturday in Michigan Stadium’s final game of the season.
Michigan, the defending Big Ten champion, is now 11-0, 8-0 Big Ten and the No. 3 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, next week playing undefeated No. 2 Ohio State, who are 43- 30 won in Maryland on Saturday.
“Right from my foot I knew it was going to go in,” said Moody, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner. “Looking up and seeing it fly in the middle, that was pretty unreal.”
Moody also made field goals of 46 and 41, and his 33-yarder pulled Michigan inside 17-16 with 3:14 left in the game. he now holds the career program record with 65 field goals, passing Garrett Rivas (64, 2003–06) and tied Remy Hamilton’s single-season record of 25 in 1994.
“I don’t know if any of us really understand what that feeling that he experienced today is like,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Jake Moody. “When he entered the dressing room, everyone was chanting his name.”
Moody and Harbaugh also named long snapper Greg Tarr and holder Brad Robbins.
SECTION SCORE: Michigan 19, Illinois 17
“I’ve been watching Michigan football since I was a kid, a pretty decent historian of Michigan football, and I nominate (Moody) for legendary status in college,” Harbaugh said with a laugh.
The Wolverines limped into the game without running back Donovan Edwards, left guard Trevor Keegan, tight end Luke Schoonmaker and edge rusher Mike Morris. Cleaner and Morris were in uniform but not playing.
Things got worse for the Wolverines when leading rusher Blake Corum, who carried the offense all season and is eligible for the Heisman Trophy, suffered an injury to his left knee just before halftime. He ran onto the field after the break and came in for a play, but was held back for the rest of the game. His status heading into Ohio State week is unclear.
Without his confident run game, Michigan’s oft-criticized pass play struggled. Sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy and the receivers were challenged to find some consistency and with Corum out, Illinois sold out to stop the run and take the passing game. McCarthy was 18 of 34 for 208 yards. Cornelius Johnson led the team with five catches for 38 yards, and Colston Loveland led in yardage with 50 on three catches.
McCarthy walked into the post-game press conference, sat down next to teammates Bell and Rod Moore and was clearly focused only on the win.
“What a game, huh?” McCarthy said before answering questions.
McCarthy and the curators have talked so much this season about the “sky’s the limit” with the attack and there’s “meat on the bone”. Bell objected to the suggestion that the passing game is not there for the Wolverines.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s not there, but I think, again, just repeat and practice, man,” Bell said. “Like I said with the meat on the bone, it’s just the smallest things that we miss. I don’t know if I would say it’s not there – that’s kind of crazy.”
He paused, looked to McCarthy’s right, and asked what he thought.
“Everything is a work in progress,” McCarthy said. “Obviously we have so many high expectations of us as a striker, especially in the passing game. So of course everyone is looking at that hole, why isn’t it there, and there’s really no ceiling to it.
“So there will always be questions why it’s not there, we should be throwing all that for 400 yards, but our identity is superior and we like to run the rock. We love doing it and applying our strength to every opponent we play. So a lot of the bone-in meat is still on the bone and ready to be released next Saturday.”
Without Morris, Michigan’s pass rush was missing. Chase Brown ran for 140 yards on 29 carries and the Illini’s 148 rushing yards were the most of any Michigan opponent this season. Linebacker Junior Colson led the team with six sacks and freshman Mason Graham made two big stops in the first half.
Illinois went 0-for-2 in fourth and during the season Michigan has held teams to 8-of-26 conversions in fourth.
“Every quarter down we have to stop and get the ball back,” said safety Rod Moore. “We knew they would run the ball and we have the best running defense in the country, and we need to show that in fourth and third. Either the secondary or the first seven, they’re going to make the play and if they don’t, the secondary will, so we just have to stop the run and the attacker get the ball back.
The Michigan defense hindered the Illini on their final drive, forcing a punt on 4e-and-long with 2:15 left, setting up the come-from-behind drive.
A win is a win, even an ugly one, a deficit that has kept the Wolverines undefeated and playing for the goals they set out to achieve for the season.
“This is like the biggest win, maybe one of the biggest wins ever,” said Harbaugh, repeating a chorus he has said after the most wins this season. “I’m going to enjoy this for a few hours, probably about six hours (and then) I’ll think about the Ohio State game.”