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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Nine — Illinois

After going 0-for-October the Spartans look to start November off with a road win in Champaign

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series more recently than Michigan State has won a football game.

Kiss your loved ones and stock up on locust repellant because we are living in the end times.

To the preview...

How We’re Feeling.gif

This might seem generous given that, unlike most games, the final score was at least respectable, but last week’s loss to Michigan was a perfect encapsulation of the 2016 Michigan State Spartans.

It could have easily gone much worse and there were some real, tangible positives. MSU played the hardest they have all season — as you would expect they would against Michigan. They were able to run the ball effectively against a very good run defense most of the day, actually (gasp) got pressure on Wilton Speight and did a respectable job — as “respectable” as 32 points can be — of containing a normally potent Wolverine offense.

But just as easily it could have collapsed, it could have gone a lot better if not for the Spartans getting in their own way and making the same mistakes that have plagued them all season.

For example, after a 12-play, 75-yard opening touchdown drive that featured a heavy dose of LJ Scott, the coaches decide to sub in Gerald Holmes and start throwing the ball. MSU didn’t get in the end zone again until there were less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Another good one, instead of running the clock out at the end of the first half and going into the locker room down two scores, Tyler O’Connor audibles into a pass play, throws a terrible interception and Michigan tacks on a field goal to make it a three score game.

We could go through more instances of questionable decision making but the point is made.

It gets exhausting saying it each and every week, but this is not what you expect from a Michigan State team. Mark Dantonio built his program on playing smart, tough football but bonehead plays, poor game management and missed assignments have become commonplace among coaches and players alike, this season.

Now, with bowl hopes hanging on by the thinnest of threads, MSU heads to Champaign to take on an Illinois team in equally bad, if not worse, shape. Let’s hope they bring the same vigor that they played with last weekend with them to the Land of Lincoln.

Illinois Offense vs Michigan State Defense

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Notable Illini

  • Leading Passer: QB Wes Lunt — 78-for-129 (60.4%) 840 yards, 6 TD/1 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Kendrick Foster — 77 carries, 450 yards, 5 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Malik Turner — 35 catches, 523 yards, 4 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: LB Chris Frey — 66 tackles, 1.5 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 sacks / DT Malik McDowell — 7 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Darian Hicks — 2 INT

We’ll start here.

It’s been a rough season, so take a moment to laugh and appreciate the majesty that is a man named Man. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Ok, now for the real/sad stuff. First, thank you to Darian Hicks for finally breaking the incredibly sad five-way tie for “Leading Ball Hawk”. Typing that out each week was getting tiring. Secondly, CAN SOMEONE PLEASE GET A SACK AND AT LEAST TIE RAEQUAN WILLIAMS!?! His two sacks have led the team for almost the entire season, which is both preposterous and indicative of the lame pass rush MSU trots out each week.

Well, not GREAT news, Illinois has only surrendered 15 sacks and 39 TFL’s so far on the season. It’s not like they don’t pass the ball, either. They’ve actually thrown 35 more times than they’ve run, despite going through three quarterbacks.

Wes Lunt, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy, was the starter for the first five games but hasn’t played since injuring his back against Purdue in early October. His backup, Chayce Crouch, started two games before his shoulder injury and subsequent season-ending surgery. The last man standing is redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr., son of former Illinois and NFL quarterback — can you guess who? — Jeff George.

In the words of Larry David, Jr’s start has been pretty pretty preetttyyyyyy bad. Through two games he is completing a shade over 40% of his passes and his team has been outscored by a staggering 81-25 margin.

If the gods are good to the Illini, Lunt may be ready to return this week. Head Coach Lovie Smith is very much like Dantonio in that he’s quite tight-lipped about injuries, so you likely won’t know until right around kickoff who will be under center. Let’s hope for George.

The running back triumvirate is much more impressive than their quarterback counterparts. The main back is 5’9” junior Kendrick Foster, who leads the way in carries, yardage and touchdowns. His two backups are freshman Reggie Corbin and sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Corbin sports an impressive 7.8 yards per carry and trails Foster for the team lead by only 39 yards despite getting 24 fewer carries. Vaughn, who was injured in the last game, is the power back at 210 pounds but has the longest run of the season, a 65-yarder.

In the passing game, it’s pretty much a one man show with Malik Turner. The 6’3” junior has 24 more catches, 399 more yards and three more touchdowns than the second leading pass catcher on the team, Zach Grant. Turner was placed under the concussion protocol last week and has been held to only two catches in each of the past three games but if he plays it’s up to George Jr to make him effective. As we’ve seen time and time again, one receiver can tear this MSU secondary apart, but the surrounding factors do not bode well for his success.

For MSU, it’s more of the same. Until one or two of the youngsters step up and start to make an impact — especially along the defensive line — it’s hard to see the unit improving a whole lot. As alluded to earlier, the Illini have protected the passer pretty well and will probably run a ton if Turner can’t go.

It’s critical the defense slow the Illini run game and put them in third-and-medium-to-long and then take your chances against a third-string quarterback. If they can do that, and in off the field, Illinois will have a tough time scoring. If not, well, you know the story.

Michigan State Offense vs Illinois Defense

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 98-for-163 (60.1%) 1,341 yards, 12 TD/7 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 115 carries, 603 yards, 4 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 37 catches, 598 yards, 4 TD

Notable Illini

  • Leading Tackler: LB Hardy Nickerson — 75 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Carroll Phillips — 6 sacks, 13 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: LB Hardy Nickerson/CB Darius Mosley — 2 INT (tie)

The MSU offensive line had its best game since Notre Dame last week. They were able to spring Scott several times, especially on the opening drive, and played very hard.

But when things went bad, they went real bad. Michigan may have only gotten two sacks, but they killed MSU’s hopes when it mattered. The Wolverines notched multiple fourth down stops and had a back breaking goal line stand in which they stuffed Scott four straight times.

Beyond that, MSU let their quarterbacks get beat up. Damion Terry was knocked from the game after getting smoked rolling out of the pocket and, of course, there was the devastating broken leg suffered by Brian Lewerke.

It’s tough to put into words just how big a bummer that injury is.

Not only did Lewerke look like easily the most competent signal caller on the roster but he is the obvious bridge to the future, which in a lost season like this one is of the utmost importance. These last four games were supposed to be his time to take the reins and show why he should be the starter for the next three seasons. Now, he’s just going to have to get healthy and ready for a dogfight with Terry and true freshman Messiah deWeaver come spring.

In the short term this goes back to being Tyler O’Connor’s team, for better or worse. Despite numerous opportunities, Terry hasn’t been able to build a case for playing time in three years and O’Connor at least knows the playbook. Also, as Chris Vannini pointed out on the podcast TO’C has the nation’s best passer rating on play action plays. WHAAAAA?! MAYBE WORK SOME MORE OF THOSE IN, DAVE.

When he’s not running PA, he’ll have to make quick decisions as Illinois has one of the more high-pressure fronts in the country. Led by end Carroll Phillips and linebacker Hardy Nickerson the Illini rank ninth in the nation averaging 8.3 TFL’s per game. That’s a lot!

One major caveat is that the Illini rank 103rd in time of possession, meaning that defense is on the field a bunch and has plenty of chances to rack up those pretty numbers. Still, they sure are pretty.

Theoretically, MSU should pound the ball the way they did early against Michigan and methodically open up play action opportunities. Illinois allows 194 yards per game (87th in the country) on the ground and 202 through the air (29th) and we all know MSU prefers to run.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the defense features a tackle named Chunky Clements which is undeniably awesome. I hope he does the truffle shuffle every time he makes a play.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Michael Geiger once again had his highs — nailing a 52-yarder — and his lows — missing a 34-yarder that came with about 10 minutes left and his team desperately needing points down 30-10 — continuing to ensure that his legacy will go down as one of the strangest in Spartan history.

(Debate whether Dantonio should have gone for the 4th-and-Goal from the 17 instead of kick all you want, I think trying to take the points was the right move, regardless of Dantonio’s post game “cut it to two scores” quote.)

The return game remained to be non-existent — although seeing Corley shagging punts was a welcome stroke of common sense — and the punter, Jake Hartbarger, continued his strong season with a 49-yarder on his only punt of the day.

Illinois Special Teams are marginal. Sophomore kicker Chase McLaughlin is 10/13 on the year with a long of 52 and punter Ryan Frain — who missed two games with injury — is averaging over 40 yards per boot. They don’t do anything dangerous on punt returns, but Kendrick Foster does average over 21 yards per kick return with a long of 41.

Return scores are one of the best was for an undermanned team to steal a win, so the MSU covers units must do their jobs and avoid disaster.

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After Northwestern, I vowed to not pick MSU for the rest of the season but I just can’t keep that promise this week.

Illinois is a trainwreck. They’re 2-6 and fresh off a home beatdown from Minnesota. Their only wins are against Rutgers and Murray State. They’ve surrendered at least 31 points in all six losses while scoring over 20 only twice. Saturday, they’ll likely be captained by a third-string quarterback who is completing two out of every five passes he throws.

They. Are. Terrible.

The Spartans aren’t world-beaters — very far from it — but this should be a layup if they play with an intensity close to what they showed last week. Then again, after what we’ve seen this season, a loss filled with head scratching moments would not be altogether shocking.

If they find a way to lose, heads should roll. 2-6 is already unacceptable. Lose to another 2-6 team and standing pat is no longer an option. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. Hopefully.

LJ Scott scores twice after finally getting fed the rock for an entire game and the defense puts the clamps on an anemic offense.

MSU 24 — Illinois 7