ANN ARBOR - Say today's Michigan-Illinois showdown was a presidential debate, with operatives from both sides arbitrarily hammering out the details before the candidates took their places.
An Illini rep offers: "Why don't we forget kickoffs?"
The Wolverines' chief negotiator: "Deal."
Illinois guy: "We'll both start each possession after a score at, say, our own 35-yard lines?"
Michigan man: "I'd have settled for the 30."
If only the Dems and GOP had it that easy.
The Wolverines are 103rd of 119 bowl subdivision teams in kickoff returns, averaging just 17.9 yards per return overall with some costly fumbles the last two games.
"The return game is atrocious," UM coach Rich Rodriguez said, speaking of his team's troubling tendencies on both kickoff and punt returns. The Wolverines are even worse returning punts, ranked in a tie for 111th with 3.5 yards per return.
Today's opponent also has issues in the kicking game. While averaging a pedestrian 20.33 yards per return (72nd in FBS), the Illini's kick unit has shown a knack for giving up huge plays.
In each of Illinois' two losses this year - to Missouri in the opener and last week to Penn State - an opposing kick returner has run one back for a touchdown. The Tigers' Jeremy Maclin went 99 yards to give Missouri the lead for good, and Nittany Lions receiver Derrick Williams had a 94-yarder.
Overall, Illini opponents are averaging 30.1 yards per kick return.
"Part of it is the kicking and part of it is the coverage," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "The thing that was frustrating about Saturday night was that you could read their return and the one that we didn't read, when we didn't go where we're supposed to go, is the one that hurt us."
The Wolverines essentially fired senior cornerback Morgan Trent from returning kicks after fumbling last week against Wisconsin. Assuming his injured ankle is OK, Greg Mathews will probably be UM's first punt returner today, even though he also put one on the ground last week.
Getting cracks at returning kicks this week could be Martavious Odoms, Avery Horn, James Rogers and Boubacar Cissoko. Rodriguez said as much this week when asked, though he took a few seconds before he answered.
"When it's taking me that long to answer the question, we've got issues," Rodriguez said. "We've got to find at least one guy who can catch the ball consistently and we've got to do a better job blocking up front."
These problems stretch beyond the teams' respective kick and kick return units.
The Illini defense gives up the most points in the Big Ten (32 per game) and second-most yards (384 per contest), and can't afford to be placed in short-field situations time and again by long kick returns.
The Wolverines, of course, have the conference's worst offense (20.8 points and 285 yards per game) and would benefit greatly from better field position.
"Our offense is not good enough, as you've seen, to go 90 yards or 85 yards every time," Rodriguez said.
"We've got to get better in our return game, so that's been a point of emphasis."
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