Illinois (3-3, 0-2) vs. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0)
Time: 2:30pm Central
Line: Michigan State -10
Forecast: 56 degrees, partly cloudy, 0% chance of rain, 16mph winds
Enemy Territory: The Only Colors
THESE FOUR THINGS
1. Get Off To A Quick Start. While I'm somebody who stands strongly in the deferring-to-the-half crowd, if the Illini win the coin toss on Saturday I hope they opt to receive the ball. Because the offense is obviously this team's strength, and that's who we want to put on the field first. And even though the Michigan State defense is very good, I hope the Illini can take that ball, move down the field and put points on the board.
Because getting the lead in this game would be big.
We've won three games and lost three games this season. In the three games we've won the Illini have scored first. While Southern Illinois responded with a touchdown to take an early 7-3 lead, the Illini quickly responded with three scores to make it 25-7 at halftime. Against Cincinnati the Illini led 21-0 before the Bearcats found the end zone, and we led 43-0 before Miami (Ohio) cracked the score column.
In the three losses the Illini never held a lead. This is a team that just doesn't seem to play nearly as well when it's behind. They don't quit, but the offense seems to feel a bit too much pressure. When we're trailing that's when we see Nathan Scheelhaase getting the happy feet in the pocket and thinking too much about what to do with the ball.
Now, I don't think scoring first is going to guarantee a win, but I do think it will go a long way toward calming everybody down and help the team play better even if Michigan State takes the lead at some point.
2. Stretch This Michigan State Defense Out. Make no mistake about it, this is the best defense the Illini have faced this season. Hell, it'll still be the best defense we faced once the season ends. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to move the ball against it, it just seems that way.
What Michigan State does is pretty basic. They run a 4-3 scheme and they rely almost entirely on the front seven to get pressure on the quarterback. And it works too, as the Spartans have 16 sacks on the season (6.22% sack rate) and a defensive pass efficiency of 88.41, which is the best in the country. Michigan State has given up as many passing touchdowns as it has interceptions with eight.
This is a very good pass defense. However, it can be beaten. The Spartans rely on man-to-man with two good corners, but if the Illini spread it out with multiple receivers and short routes, they can work their way down the field. Force Michigan State to get out of its base defense and don't let it do what it wants to do. Odds are we'll give up some sacks because while improved, this offensive line is far from perfect. But dinking and dunking with multiple receivers and different formations with a deep ball sprinkled in could work.
Plus this is a Michigan State defense that isn't shy about committing pass interference. They have physical corners who get physical. It's something the Illini can try to take advantage of.
3. Force Michigan State To Become A Passing Team. I know that's a lot easier said than done with our run defense, but it sure would be nice to see the Illini run defense put together a strong performance after what we've seen the last two games. Michigan State is not a great offensive team, everyone knows that, but they do have a couple running backs capable of moving the ball when they decide to use them. Jeremy Langford is the main guy, but Nick Hill gives them a shifty guy to go along with the beef of freshman Delton Williams as well.
And we all know that any team that's coming in to face the Illini is going to try to run the ball because the Illini haven't shown they can stop anybody from doing so. We also know the Spartans will look to run because their passing attack isn't all that great. Sparty's passing efficiency of 112.64 is ranked 101st in the country, and while I know that we could be asking for trouble considering that V'Angelo Bentley is out and we're going to have a lot of freshmen in the secondary, I think the best way to stop this offense is to force it to pass. There just isn't a guy in Michigan State's receiving corps that we need to be scared of.
Force guys who haven't shown an ability to consistently make plays make those plays against you.
4. For The Love Of God Let's Get A Turnover Or Three. The Illini have forced five turnovers all season. There are only two teams in the country who have forced less, and they are Troy and Texas-San Antonio. Now, as we've talked about, this Michigan State defense is very good, and if we get to 24 points we should consider it a great achievement.
But you know what would make getting to 24 points a lot easier? Short fields.
Short fields created by forcing turnovers and putting the offense in great field position. Yes, special teams can help in this area too, but as I mentioned, we have no V'Angelo Bentley this week. So now forcing turnovers on defense becomes that much more important.
But you know what? I don't want to see the Illini force turnovers solely for reasons of possibly winning this game. I just want to see the Illini defense force turnovers so I know that they're capable of forcing turnovers. You know why? Because in eight conference games in 2011 the Illini defense forced 11 turnovers. Now, that number doesn't seem amazing, and that's because it isn't.
However that number suddenly develops a golden aura around it after you find out that in the last two seasons, spanning 11 conference games, the Illini have only forced nine turnovers.
I just want to see one. They're like fucking unicorns at this point.
Fornelli: Way back in August when I was writing all the season previews for this season, I pointed to this game as a possible upset for the Illini. All the reasons I used then still apply now. The Michigan State offense still isn't very good, and this is still the fourth week in a row that the Spartans have played a game. And Michigan still looms on the schedule next week, so it's possible Sparty gets caught looking ahead. But while all that still applies, this defense just hasn't done anything to give me the confidence to actually call the upset. Michigan State 27-14 (4-2 on the season).
Primiano: I'm pretty upset I can't watch most of this game since it's always fun to see teams with complementary units compete. I don't think the good Illini offense against the stellar MSU defense will ultimately decide the game though. It's going to be whether the Spartans offense can do anything against the terrible Illini defense. This is Tim Banks' big day to be a hero. Illinois 24-17 (5-1 on the season).
Birkhead: I think the Illini do have a chance to win this game, but it's a very small chance. The Spartans should be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides, and be able to put up some points through their running game. 30-17 Michigan State (4-2 on the season).
Cassidy: I believe it was Brandon who said this last week, and he spoke with wisdom beyond his years: Illinois' rebuilding has a long way to go. Holy shit, does it have a long way to go. It still needs 11 players for defense! So, I really cannot foresee an outcome where the Illini even hang close, nonetheless win. At least we'll get to see another week of future NFL MVP Josh Ferguson. Michigan State 31-14 (3-3 on the season).