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The Illini Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football 2022: Michigan State Spartans

A primer to Illinois’s conference foes; a reference for the rest of us

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Illinois at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.

We’re finally getting to opponents on this year’s schedule with the...

Michigan State Spartans

After Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers, it’s nice to talk about a school that’s at least been in the Big Ten for my entire life. The Michigan Agricultural College had an unremarkable first several decades of competition before Biggie Munn became the head coach in 1947. Some argue that his 1951 team was the best in the nation. We at The Champaign Room do not endorse this argument.

The Spartans joined the Big Ten as its tenth member, replacing the University of Chicago, and did so well in their inaugural season that they won a share of Illinois’s conference title. Munn’s successor Duffy Daugherty won four more national titles and retired after the ‘72 season.

Ever since then, the Spartans have largely meandered between being “okay” and “fantastic,” with highlights such as George Perles’s 1987 Rose Bowl squad and two Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl win and a CFP berth for Mark Dantonio’s squad between 2013 and 2015. Following that season, Dantonio’s program became erratic until he retired, paving the way for Mel Tucker to take over a super-depleted roster.

Michigan State v Rutgers
Mark Dantonio looking upset.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Tucker would, naturally, win 11 games in his second season.

I’ll touch on this later, but unlike the entitled attitude of Ohio State fans, Michigan State fans like to see themselves as a just an everyman, normal hardworking salt-of-the-earth college football program like you and me. Sure, they’ve seen highs, but they’ve also seen the depths of despair, such as that time they had a losing season in 2016, or that time a LONG time ago where they only won 14 games across three seasons.

They’ve got the same problems we have, the difference is they just worked really hard to overcome them, you see.

History vs Illinois

Okay, I’ll grant them this: they HAVE seen some SHIT, such as going 0-2 against Lovie Smith.

Prior to Jeff George, Jr.’s bizarre game-winning touchdown drive in 2016, Illinois had won just once against the Spartans since 1992, losing twelve times in that span.

Our history with Michigan State is strange. We’ve shared a conference with them for 68 years, but only played them 47 times. This fall will be our first game against them since 2019 and only our fourth since 2010. Over the last 12 years, they might as well be in a different conference.

Nevertheless, our last game against them was truly a special occasion, as it marked not only Illinois’ first bowl-eligible season in five years but the largest comeback in the history of Fighting Illini football.

Quite a departure from hosting the Spartans for Homecoming in 2013 and watching literal vultures circle Memorial Stadium as we trailed 35-3 late in the contest en route to a 39-point defeat.

Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 19-26-2 against Michigan State (6 national championships, 9 conference titles)

Last Season

Michigan State kicked off their fever dream of a 2021 campaign by stomping Northwestern, as one does. This was the breakout game for Wake Forest transfer (and current Seattle Seahawk) Kenneth Walker at running back; he would prove such a formidable threat on the ground that Naperville Central QB/WR duo Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed found some room to work with as well. A road win at Miami was just another building block to what would eventually be an 8-0 start capped off by a 37-33 defeat of #6 Michigan.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Penn State at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, their pass defense, which would finish dead last in the nation with the most passing yards allowed, couldn’t slow down Purdue and they fell to the Boilers 40-29. This suggested terrible things were in store against Ohio State. Indeed: the Buckeyes rolled 56-7. Nevertheless, MSU beat Penn State to finish with 10 wins in the regular season, a far cry from the roughly 4.5 wins most oddsmakers predicted.

They’d win the Peach Bowl in dramatic fashion and then swipe Illinois TE (and hero of the 2019 comeback) Daniel Barker in free agency (the transfer portal).

Coaching Staff & Identity

Mel Tucker is the third-year head coach for the Spartans and will be the man for the foreseeable future, as he now makes about as close to 8 figures annually as you can get without actually adding that extra digit. Long-time Illinois fans are no strangers to our own team coming out of nowhere, but the differences are:

  1. MSU is much more likely to be the Team Coming Out Of Nowhere than Illinois
  2. Unlike Illinois, MSU having a great season tends to be indicative of future success instead of a guarantee that they’ll go 5-7 the following year.

Tucker spent some time at Ohio State and in the NFL before joining former Michigan State head coach Nick Saban’s 2015 Alabama staff. He’d later leave for Georgia along with new head coach Kirby Smart. Tucker was the defensive coordinator for several years under Smart and was a recruiting powerhouse unto himself. Colorado hired him as their head coach in 2019, but Michigan State swiped him after one 5-7 campaign.

2022 Big Ten Conference Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Tucker has delivered by assembling a tremendous roster out of leftovers, the transfer portal and some good scouting. He’s recruiting at an extremely high level, so that roster is likely to continue improving.

OC Jay Johnson followed Tucker to Michigan State, where he runs an offense built on a foundation of inside and outside zone runs, usually from the shotgun but occasionally from the pistol, sometimes with an H-back. The Spartans will (#SpartansWill) of course try to hit the go route a few times per game to keep the defense honest. On the other side, Scottie Hazleton calls what’s kind of a 4-3 nickel base defense with a hybrid CB/LB that’s more of a CB.

Dudes To Watch

Replacing Kenneth Walker will be one hell of a task on offense. They will try to do so with former Wisconsin back Jalen Berger and former Colorado back Jarek Broussard. In the overwhelmingly likely case that they can’t replace Walker 1:1, QB Payton Thorne is going to have to play much smarter in the passing game with his top target Jalen Nailor gone. He had a tendency to stare down receivers instead of working through his progression.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pitt v Michigan State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest returning contributor on defense is Freshman All-American linebacker Cal Haladay. Oddly, the defensive backfield is one of the few places on the roster not being dramatically overhauled through the transfer portal.

Season Prediction & Fan Expectations

Fan expectations are all over the place, which can happen when you overachieve in Year 2. This can engender the expectations in some fans that you will CONTINUE to overachieve, so even if 8-4 sounds reasonable, the guy that won 11 games last year will surely find a way to overachieve again this year.

There are, of course, a lot of MSU fans that do not take this viewpoint largely because they were so thoroughly humbled by Ohio State that it would be a huge stretch to suggest they’re a top contender in the Buckeyes’ division. The Spartan faithful are still expecting a winning season with a signature win or two, building towards future greatness.

For my part, I’m seeing between 7 to 8 wins for this team because I really do think Walker was a contributor on the level of Rashard Mendenhall and the 2007 Illini O-line.

Illinois Game Prediction

I don’t have a good feel for this because I have no idea how the MSU defense is going to look. If their pass defense is awful, it won’t matter because Illinois is not likely to revolutionize the passing game in 2022. Based on some talent at the skill positions and the big-play potential of the offense, I’ll spot the Spartans a couple of touchdowns in the November 5th home game for Illinois.

Typical Fan

Why Michigan State Sucks

The typical Michigan State fan places just two things above the Spartans in terms of importance:

(1) the Michigan Wolverines

(2) insisting that they do not care about the Michigan Wolverines

Illinois hasn’t had a winning season in 15 years and the tailgating scene is miles ahead of East Lansing’s. I missed Josh Imatorbhebhe’s touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter because I was swimming upstream against droves of MSU fans filing out of the stadium to beat traffic as the fourth quarter started.

Mark Dantonio won the Big Ten in 2015 and then killed the engine and coasted to his retirement. The extent of this sleepwalking was on full display in the aforementioned 2019 Illinois game. Yet they still had a 10-win season in the middle of this shit! Despite that, they continue to insist that their fortunes are no more buoyant than those of Indiana.

Blowing a 28-3 lead while wearing them was not enough for MSU to retire the neon-green-on-green uniforms.

Lloyd Sy: Four years ago I went to a conference in East Lansing. I stayed at a cheap airbnb, whose proprietor was the BIGGEST Sparty fan. Every inch of the wall had MSU paraphernalia, most of it crusty and musty. He had a cat and the litterbox in the shared bathroom had not been cleaned in...a while. Shower did not have hot water. Bed was rock-hard. Perhaps most memorably, the (late 40s) dude was creepy af; his “welcome guide” gave tips on which bars had the “hottest teenagers” and he smelled of alcohol every night. I stayed in my room as much as I could. In a pleasant moment of camaraderie, though, he told me—as, I swear, a tear rolled down his eye—that Tom Izzo was the greatest American alive.

@WhityRemarks: I think MSU is the most easily forgotten team in the Big Ten for me because of the East/West. They’re good enough they aren’t comparable to Illinois (like we ask ourselves if we’re better than IU, Maryland or Rutgers each year) but they’re also forgotten amongst Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State most years.

We’ve beaten them 3 times in the last 30 years. Twice by Lovie Smith (LOL) and Zook’s first Big Ten victory against John L Smith (LOL).

He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire): There are lots of reasons to hate MSU….except every reason I can think of is because of basketball. Maybe watching Daniel Barker scorch the Earth in Green will do it, but the only reason I can think of to hate MSU football is their truly hideous uniforms they’ve unleashed on the world at times. But Izzo can suck it. We did get a better coach than Bruce Weber despite your protestations and laughing about winning by getting back to your “street fighting ways” while your opponents star is at the hospital getting his broken nose set is either stupid and tone deaf or incredibly asshole-ish.

Matt Rejc: Watching Tom Izzo come to Bruce Weber’s defense after Illinois fired him was all kinds of weird and cringey. But the biggest problem I had with it was Izzo feeling the need to weigh in on the move at all. Mike Thomas made the right call by moving on from Bruce, as the program was clearly stagnating under him, recruiting had suffered, and Bruce had completely lost the locker room toward the end of the 2011-12 season. John Groce was the wrong hire, but that’s a separate matter. The last thing we needed was someone who knew 1/10th of the situation to come in and blast our administration in front of the national media for making the right move.