It’s been a whirlwind of a season for the Illini. First the 2-0 start, the disturbing loss to a pretty bad EMU team, and a near-defeat of Nebraska while giving up 700 yards of offense. Things looked rock-bottom after the Minnesota loss, and then we had the McCourt miracle. Wisconsin? W. Purdue who? Rutgers... you get the idea.
The next test may be the most important of Lovie Smith’s career since coming to Illinois. I’m sure that has been said many times before, but perhaps now we can actually say that this is true. With a win, the Illini will be bowl-eligibile for the first time since the 2015 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. A loss means that Illinois needs to win either at Iowa or against Northwestern, two things that I simply cannot trust to happen as an Illini fan. Get it done now, make Iowa work for its win, and then make Pat Fitzgerald blush when we turn him over three times and give up just 10 points. Then it’s a 7-5 season, and I think most of us would say, as a whole, that would be a success.
I’m getting ahead of myself, as many Illini fans are prone to do. We need to focus on the Spartans. Here are some ways to do that:
Don’t rely on turnovers
Spartan fans will probably tell you this is the worst team they’ve had in a long time. They are probably correct. At just 4-4 overall (and 2-3 in the conference), the Spartans are certainly not a lock for a bowl game. Brian Lewerke has not had a great year, and their running backs haven’t found the end zone a whole lot, either. Wisconsin demolished Michigan State on Homecoming in Madison, 38-0. Lewerke and Rocky Lombardi combined for just 119 passing yards and each had an interception. The Spartans only had 30 rushing yards all day.
Clearly this Michigan State offense is succeptable to struggling. If Lovie wants to win this game (and not look like his team is sleepwalking like they did during the first half against Rutgers), he needs to hammer the line of scrimmage. Don’t let Elijah Collins (545 yards, 4.7 avg this season) run the ball through the middle of the defense. Jake Hansen and Dele Harding will need to be on their game. If Lewerke or Lombardi are put in pressure situations, they are prone to making bad decisions.If the defense can keep the pressure on and force third-and-long situations, the offense will be in good shape.
Rely on Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin
These are your guys. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Brown’s resurgence this year. He’s been vaulable both in the backfield and on kickoffs as well. Combined, they have over 1,000 yards for the year. Corbin is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and Dre an even 6.0 yards. Last year’s offense was great because of the running game, and many of the wins this year have come as a result of relying on your o-line and your halfbacks. And, of course, turning the opponent over on the defensive side of the ball.
If these guys have good a good day running the ball against the Spartan defense, the defene’s job will be that much easier.
Put Brandon Peters in positions to succeed
This goes hand-in-hand with leaning on your running game to win the game. Peters finally had another good game against Rutgers last week, although he completed just 6-of-11 passes for 120 yards, he was relatively efficient. The running game allowed him to not make errant throws and he was able to get some deep balls off like the one he flicked to Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Additionally, Peters had that big run that he almost took to the house. Not too shabby. If Rod doesn’t put too much pressure on Peters to win the game for the Illini, he will likely perform better.
I shouldn’t have to say this after we beat Wisconsin... but the last thing this team needs is to not prepare fully for this game. Wisconsin was looking past the Illini to the Ohio State game. Where did that get them? On the other end of a game-winnning field goal from James McCourt. We just saw Brad Underwood’s Illini men’s basketball team nearly lose to Nicholls State on Tuesday night.
The point is, Michigan State is not going to take it easy on us, and they are not Rutgers or Purdue. The Illini need to be fired up and ready to go if they expect to win this game.
If they are, the Illini might be bowling for the first time in a handful of years.