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Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. The Illinois Fighting Illini

WEATHER REPORT (as of Thursday Afternoon): Partly Cloudy, 52 degrees, 10% chance of rain

Michigan State hasn't played the Fighting Illini since Homecoming of 2006, and if you remember that game, I feel sorry for you, myself, and anyone in the rooms around either of us.  The white dwarf star that is was Juice Williams burst onto the scene, beating the Spartans 23-20 for Illinois' only win against a 1-A team that season.  That was how bad the John L. Smith era was, lest you forget.

Today, it seems only fitting that Juice gets benched before this game, giving way to redshirt junior Eddie McGee.  Will McGee's addition spark the Illini?  Can MSU establish a decent running game this week?  Will I be stunned like I was three years ago?  The answers to these questions can be found after the jump.


Let's get to the main question on most Spartan fans' minds: How good is Eddie McGee?  Let's take a look at his stats this season:

9/5 Missouri L 37-9 4 9 36 44.4 19 0 0 78.04 2 11 5.5 6 0
9/12 Illinois State W 45-17 13 17 164 76.5 27 1 1 165.15 18 55 3.1 16 2
9/26 @Ohio State L 30-0 2 4 11 50.0 7 0 1 23.10 3 -3 -1.0 4 0
10/3 Penn State L 35-17 DNP


And for Eddie's career:

2007 29 55 444 52.7 8.07 56 2 3 2 121.63
2008 4 9 59 44.4 6.56 30 0 0 0 99.51
2009 19 30 211 63.3 7.03 27 1 2 3 120.08


I think it's safe to say Eddie's not a significant upgrade in any way from Juice Williams. In fact, Eddie has a worse attempt-to-interception ratio than Juice (15 attempts to 1 INT for Eddie, 22.3 attempts to 1 INT for Juice).  I interpret the quarterback switcheroo as a massive sign that Ron Zook has ascended from a mere councilman to mayor of [REDACTED], and the move won't make the Illini offense significantly better.  Michigan State won't have to worry about the passing game as long as Arrelious Benn stays ignored (only 10 receptions in four games this season).  As for quarterback scrambles and draws, the Spartans have shut down quarterback runs--both scripted and unscripted--for the most part this season.

The running attack is slightly better than the passing game.  The Illini have averaged 3.1 yards a carry in their two Big Ten games this season (disclaimer - those games were against OSU and PSU).  Jason Ford, their rushing leader, racked up 137 of his 173 yards in the Eastern Illinois game.  Their second leading rusher will be on the bench, for he is Juice Williams.  The one running back to be concerned about is Daniel Dufrene, who will either get busy livin' or get busy dyin' against Trevor Anderson and company (yup, Shawshank'd. Bonus trivia question - name the book the story was first in).  Dufrene had 11 rushes for 54 yards against a good Penn State defense.

As for Michigan State, they should do exactly what they did during the first 55 minutes of the Michigan game.  The Illini probably have the worst offense MSU has faced since Montana State, but with that said, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Illini have a couple long offensive drives, since Ohio State and Penn State have significantly better defenses than the Spartans.


Simply put, Illinois' weakness is team offenses with one vowel in their division classification.  Missouri, OSU, and PSU all scored at least 30 points, while Eastern Illinois put up 17.  If you're looking for a possible comparison point to how good the Illini defense might be, here's a hint: Akron, Temple, and Syracuse all allowed less points to Penn State than Illinois did.  Even though Penn State did rein in the offense late in those early games...still.

Here's how the Illini have done defensively:

Team Pass Yards Run Yards Total Yards Yards Per Play
Missouri 325 117 442 6.14
Illinois State 354 44 398 5.53
Ohio State 82 236 318 5.39
Penn State 175 338 513 7.89


Missouri was unstoppable through the air, and Eastern Illinois passed because it was their only way to be effective.  As for Ohio State and Penn State, the passing defense wasn't all that bad, as Penn State threw it 25 times in that game for an average of 7.0 yards per attempt.  However, Penn State didn't need to pass when the running game picked up steam.  Regarding Ohio State, Jim Tressel only calls passes under gunpoint.

The strategy for Michigan State is this: Use the pass to set up the run.  Cousins has had little trouble with accuracy for passes under ten yards, and once the offense consistently gets at least five yards on first down (KJ's performed the math - throwing on first down is when the MSU offense is most effective), the run game should open up.  I know this thought is an antithesis to one of the offense's central tenets, but Dantonio has shown he's not averse to a pass-heavy offense when Michigan State is behind.


The kicker for Illinois this season, Matt Eller, has been adequate, making 8 of 9 extra points and 3 of 4 field goals.  However, that miss was on Eller's only attempt longer than 40 yards.  Anthony Santella, the punter, hasn't shown a lot of power on his punts this season; he's averaging 38.5 yards per punt and has a long of 47 yards.  The biggest threat on special teams is Arrelious Benn, who handles kick returns in addition to his receiving duties.  He hasn't had a touchdown yet though, and Illinois has averaged less than 25 yards on its kick returns this season.


I'm a little worried about this game.  Illinois has played some tough opponents so far this season including two of the top three teams in the Big Ten.  I'm pretty sure Illinois is better than what they've shown in their games against 1-A competition.  However, Coach Zook's curious decision to bench Juice Williams leads me to one of two possible conclusions: Juice is more injured than anyone is letting on, or Zook is pressing the panic button WITH AN INTENSITY NOT SEEN BY MANKIND.

Michigan State, on the other hand, is coming off a win where the defense showed signs of life for the first time since the opener.  I hope Cousins' ankle is 100%, because that 41-yard run in the Michigan game demonstrated why Cousins has the edge over Nichol - Cousins doesn't have more athletic ability, but he knows when to run and when to pass and has the ability to make the right read better than Nichol does currently.  Hopefully the offensive line can help the running backs consistently get at least three yards per rush.

I feel like this is a game Michigan State should win, and very well needs to win to keep their bowl hopes alive.  The Illini will look good at times, and this game is going to be closer than a lot of us would like.  The Spartans will prevail though on...let's say a Cousins pass to B.J. Cunningham and a field goal.