It's Homecoming for the Illini this week as they are taking on the Spartans from Michigan State, a team with one of the best defenses in the country. Chris Vannini from The Only Colors joins us this week in our Q&A to answer our questions about the MSU squad.
1. What makes the Michigan State defense so good?
There's no one thing more than the players being fully comfortable with and excelling in Pat Narduzzi's style of defense. It's very aggressive, but also simple, allowing players freedom while still giving them responsibility. In Dantonio's/Narduzzi's first three years at MSU, the defense was actually the weak spot of the team, and many wanted Narduzzi gone. But he stuck to his system, raised players in it, and we've seen the benefits since then. Defensive line needs to get to the quarterback and take up blocks, linebackers need to get to the quarterback in different blitzes, cornerbacks need to defend the sidelines on islands, and safeties need to play all over the field. There's certainly an influx of talent, but this defense is all about forcing mistakes from the opposing offense.
2. The offense is terrible when compared to the defense. Why is this? Is recruiting on offense just not working right now, or are there deeper issues?
Recruiting on offense hasn't been as good by defense, if you go by the ratings, but it hasn't been bad by any means. What we've seen in the past two years is a decrease in development. MSU's 11-win teams in 2010 and 2011 were led by a bunch of three-star recruits. The current offense has three- and four-star recruits, but they haven't taken steps forward like previous classes, especially at wide receiver. The offensive line has typically been decimated by injuries. It's healthy this year (knock on wood), and we're seeing the best line in the Dantonio era. At quarterback, they've got a number of highly-touted guys. Andrew Maxwell was an Elite 11 QB supposed to slide into Kirk Cousins' shoes, but it didn't happen. Throw in the early departure of Le'Veon Bell, and they've gone young. There's only one starting senior among the offensive skill positions, so the hope is this side of the ball can grow this year and take a step forward next season.
3. Do you think the Spartans are contenders in the Big Ten title race? Why or why not?
I do, if only for the fact no one really stands out in the whole conference, Ohio State included. Nebraska's defense is very questionable, Michigan hasn't proven itself on the line and has other issues, Northwestern has dug itself a hole, and even Ohio State's defense has its question marks. With this defense, there's no reason MSU can't be in every game (every B1G loss last year was by four points or fewer). Unlike last year, we know this offense *can* move the ball. It won't always (see: early part of season, Purdue), but the Iowa and Indiana games showed us that there is potential with the offense. If they can get enough from the offense, they'll be right there.
4. Which players should Illini fans keep their eyes on on offense? Defense?
On offense, I'm expecting a heavy dose of running, so speedster Jeremy Langford and powerful Delton Williams will be the two-headed attack you'll probably hear most about. Langford (4.6 ypc) has gotten better and more confident as the year has gone along, while Williams (5.5 ypc) is a true freshman who made his debut recently and has impressed.
On defense, it starts with defensive end Shilique Calhoun (4 sacks, 15 QB hurries) and middle linebacker Max Bullough (42 tackles, 6.5 TFLs. They'll makes the tackles and cause the pressure at the line. On the outside, cornerback Darqueze Dennard (2 INTs, 7 pass breakups) is tough to beat, and he's usually alone out there.
MSU is going to try to grind this out with the running game,and I think MSU will get enough out of its offense. Illinois will move the ball at times on MSU's defense, but not enough.
Thanks again to Chris for answering our questions. We kindly request a steroid test for Sparty. We're not stupid.