The Illinois Fighting Illini travel to the state of Michigan to take on the Michigan State Spartans this weekend. Illinois is on a three-game winning streak after beating Rutgers handily last week. Michigan State was on bye last week and is in the midst of a three-game losing streak. The Spartans were outscored by Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State on that losing streak by a combined score of 100-17.
Illinois did not play Michigan State in 2018 or 2017, but Lovie Smith does have a victory over Sparty in 2016 — his first season at the helm. The Illini beat MSU 31-27 in Champaign, Kendrick Foster and Jeff George Jr. had big games almost three years ago to the day.
When Michigan State has the ball
Establishing the run is more important than winning, apparently
Sparty’s offense has been woeful. They were shutout at Wisconsin. They scored just seven points at home vs Penn State in the rain. They scored 10 points at Ohio State.
Statistically, Michigan State is a bottom-three rushing team in the Big Ten in both total rush yards and rushing yards per game, but coach Mark Dantonio insists on playing smash-mouth, run it down your throat football even though that has not been working. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the teams Michigan State has played (Badgers, Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Northwestern Wildcats) are all really, really good at stopping the run, but according to Mark Dantonio: “If it’s broken, don’t fix it.” That’s how he coaches, and that’s a big reason why Michigan State fans have had it with the head coach who’s been in charge since 2007.
Michigan State’s offensive line has been bad. They do not have the pieces they’ve had in the past, and collectively its been a sore spot on the Spartans’ roster. Michigan State does not have the running backs either to play the type of football Mark Dantonio’s teams are used to playing. Redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins has 535 yards on 115 rush attempts and three touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He has eight receptions for 47 yards.
Elijah Collins is not small, but he does not run with the type of power L.J. Scott ran with the last four years wearing the green and white. Collins only has one 100-yard game this season, and that was back in Week 2 in MSU’s 51-17 win over Western Michigan. Unlike what the Illini do offensively with Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner, Sparty does not really rotate running backs much in the game.
Darrell Stewart Jr is the best wide receiver on the field... when MSU gets him the ball — He’s been ruled out against Illinois.
Darrell Stewart is one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, and even though his numbers are outstanding at this point in the season, Michigan State does not get him the ball as much as they should. *Stewart was injured in the Penn State game two weeks ago, and as of Tuesday November 5, he’s been ruled OUT for the game against Illinois.
The senior has 47 receptions for 694 yards — those figures rank in the top-3 in the conference. He’s also Sparty’s primary kick returner. He has almost 150 career receptions and just over 1,600 receiving yards at Michigan State and will go down as one of the better wide receivers to ever suit up in East Lansing. He could be even more of a threat, but Michigan State’s coaching staff refuses to adjust to what other teams are doing to stop the run. Michigan State is going to miss Stewart on Saturday versus the Illini.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke is a solid quarterback with deceptive speed
It seems like Brian Lewerke has been at Michigan State forever. The senior has appeared in 33 football games at Michigan State, and statistically his numbers are a lot better this year than last year. He already has more touchdown passes (11) than he had all of last year (8), and it appears his turnover woes of 2018 are pretty much behind him.
At times he struggles with his accuracy, but he can be a pretty lethal option quarterback because he’s so big and strong. By no means is he a fast, speedy quarterback, but similar and even better to what Illinois has in Brandon Peters, those first eight strides or so running forward after faking a handoff are pretty impressive. Michigan State would be more successful if they did zone-read option quarterback keepers more often, but they do not. This coaching staff seems to be lost in the dark ages and they keep harping back to what led them to success in 2013-2015 and in 2017 despite not having the quality of personnel.
Conclusion: This is the opposite scenario of what Purdue did against Illinois
Purdue abandoned the run early and Jeff Brohm coached himself out of the game. Mark Dantonio time and time again abandons the pass, forces his team to run the ball — even when that’s not working.
When Illinois has the ball
Michigan State’s defense is a lot better than their offense. It starts upfront.
Michigan State has more talent and a better scheme defensively than offensively. Compared to other Big Ten teams, Sparty’s defense ranks in the middle of the pack and behind some of the best in the country in Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, etc.
Senior defensive end Kenny Willekes is a terror, and should be an early round NFL Draft pick next year. He gets overshadowed in the Big Ten and nationally with the likes of Chase Young of Ohio State, Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State, and AJ Epenesa at the same position in his conference, but Willekes more than holds his own. He led the Big Ten in 2018 in tackles for loss.
Defensive tackle Raequan Williams has played alongside Kenny Willekes on that front-seven for his entire career, and Williams is a 6-foot-4, 304 pound monster that loves to get after the quarterback and stuff the run. Junior Naquon Jones does not have the same stats as Williams and Willekes, but at 340 pounds lining up directly across from the center, he’s impossible to miss and eats up a lot of the o-linemen.
Senior Joe Bachie is a productive linebacker and leads his team in tackles. He’s tied with Willekes and Williams with 3.5 sacks a piece, also leading the team. He has an interception this season, too. Pending appeal or a change in status, Joe Bachie will be ineligible to play against the Illini for allegedly failing a PED test.
The Panasiuk brothers (Jacub and Mike) play along the defensive line and feed off of Willekes and Williams. They clean up a lot of the mess the two stars create and are really good tacklers themselves.
Josiah Scott leads a decent defensive backfield
Junior Josiah Scott is an undersized, yet very good cornerback for the Spartans. If he decides to leave at the end of this season, he projects as a middle-round NFL draft pick.
He has two interceptions on the season and five in his career. He’s usually the player assigned to the opponent’s best wide receiver. Because Michigan State’s front seven is the strength of their team, not a whole lot is asked of the secondary to make plays or cover guys one-on-one for long stretches.
Michigan State Special Teams Notes
Michigan State’s best playmaker and wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr handles the kickoff returns. He averages 21.9 yards per return. True freshman cornerback Julian Barnett is likely going to assume those duties now that Darrell Stewart is no longer suiting up.
Cody White and Brandon Sowards have split punt return duties, though it’s been all Sowards the last couple of games. Sowards is listed as a wide receiver but does not have a catch on the offensive side of the ball in 2019. In 2018, he was featured more on offense and had over 200 yards receiving on 18 catches.
Kicking and Punting
Junior Matt Coghlin is Michigan State’s kicker. He’s 19 for 19 on extra points this year. He’s pretty bad when he kicks field goals. He’s 11 for 18 on field goals this season. He missed three field goals in Michigan State’s devastating 10-7 home loss to Arizona State.
The punter is senior Jake Hartbarger. He averages a solid 44.0 yards per punt.