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Game Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Michigan State Spartans

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a trying time for the Michigan State Spartans football program right now, coming off of three straight blowout losses against Big Ten powers. However, following its second bye in the past three weeks, the team now has a chance to bounce back and get one game above .500 on Saturday against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

This Illinois team is hard to figure out. It lost early season matchups to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska, yet upset Wisconsin (right after the Badgers dismantled the Spartans), and is currently on a three-game winning streak.

We will see exactly how these teams stack up against each other this weekend, but in the meantime, let’s preview the matchup:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2019 Record — 4-4 (2-3 Big Ten)

Offense (per game average) — 345.9 total yards, 233.0 passing yards, 112.9 rushing yards

Defense (per game average) — 312.8 total yards allowed, 195.63 passing yards allowed, 117.1 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 174 (21.75 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 175 (21.88 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 29th

2019 Record — 5-4 (3-3 Big Ten)

Offense (per game average) — 325.8 total yards, 162.78 passing yards, 163.0 rushing yards

Defense (per game average)— 396.6 yards allowed, 209.11 passing yards allowed, 187.4 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 270 (30.0 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 233 (24.78 ppg)

Current S&P+ Ranking: 57th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 26-18-2
Current streak: Illinois with one win
Last Michigan State Win: Oct. 26, 2013 (42-3)
Last Illinois Win: Nov. 5 2016 (31-27)
Michigan State all-time record: 705-463-44 (.600)
Illinois all-time record: 611-597—50 (.506)

Previous Game Results

Penn State 28, Michigan State 7

The weather was awful and the on-field performance by the Spartans was even worse. The Spartans couldn’t get anything going offensively, mustering only 265 total yards and turning the ball over four times. It was another game where Brian Lewerke struggled, completing just 47 percent of his passes for 165 yards, with zero touchdowns, an interception and a fumble lost. The run game wasn’t much better, as the Spartans totaled just 83 yards, and lead back Elijah Collins averaged 3.1 yards per carry. The defense wasn’t a total disaster, holding Penn State’s offense to 302 total yards, including just 189 passing yards and 113 rushing yards, but Michigan State’s inability to score any points made this game a blowout.

Time to turn the focus to Illinois:

llinois 38, Rutgers 10

How do we still allow Rutgers to be a Big Ten team? The Scarlet Knights allowed an offense that is ranked 114th in the country (and that’s currently, must’ve been lower before this game) to total 371 yards, including 204 yards on the ground. Quarterback, and former Michigan Wolverine, Brandon Peters only attempted 11 passes, completing six of them for 120 yards, one touchdown and zero picks. Peters also added 41 yards on the ground, while running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 82 rushing yards and two touchdowns (both by Brown). It was the Illinois defense that really stepped up forcing three turnovers and scoring two touchdowns. Illinois is playing confident football right now.

Key Matchups

Elijah Collins and MSU offensive line versus Illinois run defense: This is the matchup that Michigan State has to take advantage of if the Spartans want to walk away with a victory. This has not been a strong suit for MSU this season, as the team ranks 118th in the country in rushing offense, and of course the offensive line is banged up. But Illinois ranks just 95th in the country, allowing 187.4 rushing yards per game. The Fighting Illini also allow more than 4.1 yards per carry. This is an important game for Collins — who has struggled a bit since his breakout game against Western Michigan — to set the tone and help the Spartans control the clock.

Brandon Peters versus Michigan State Secondary: Peters has done what has been asked him at Illinois, which is essentially managing games and being efficient. He has a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has helped lead his team to a winning record (he missed the Michigan game and most of the Minnesota game — both losses). But Peters is not really a threat to tear you up through the air. He averages just 139.6 yards per game and 6.8 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the MSU passing defense has actually been really solid this season, allowing 195.6 yards through the air per game (33rd in the NCAA). MSU also ranks 20th in total defense, so Peters and the Illini offense have their work cut out for them.

Illinois Rushing attack versus Michigan State front seven: Illinois has three separate running backs who have rushed for at least 182 yards, including two players in Corbin and Brown who have rushed for at least 442 yards. Corbin leads the charge with 577 yards on the ground and five touchdowns, while Brown leads the team with a six-yards-per-carry average. While the MSU defense has not been as dominant against the run this year as it was last season, the unit has still been really tough against opposing tailbacks — ranking in the top-25 nationally in both yards per game allowed (117.1) and yards per attempt (3.32). Winning the line of scrimmage will go a long way in this contest.

Game Info

Time: 3:30 p.m. (EST)
TV Channel: FS1
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Weather expectations: High of 40 degrees, cloudy, winds blowing south/southwest at 14 miles per hour
Line: MSU -14.5


Let’s talk about key players who are not expected to take the field for the Spartans this weekend: middle linebacker Joe Bachie (suspended), center Matt Allen (leg) and wide receiver Darrell Stewart (leg). Of course, this comes in addition to players like wide receivers Jalen Nailor and Tre’Von Morgan, and offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis and Cole Chewins, amongst others, who have already missed the majority of the season and aren’t expected back this week.

How big of an impact is this going to make? Well, I would say a significant one. Anytime you lose a captain and outstanding player in Joe Bachie, things are going to be tough. His replacement, Noah Harvey, is unproven as a full-time player. Cody White, Laress Nelson and C.J. Hayes will need to step up at wide receiver, and perhaps the young freshmen such as Tre Mosley and Julian Barnett will get some run as well. At center, sophomore Blake Bueter and true freshman Nick Samac are listed as co-starters. Bueter has starting experience and should get the job done, while we don’t know quite what to expect from Samac just yet.

For Illinois, this is a team that has found what works for them and is sticking by it. The Illini have a decent rushing attack, and play solid defense, at least in terms of points allowed and passing defense. The team also is tied for the most takeaways in the NCAA (22), and has a plus-12 turnover margin, which is tied for third best in the country.

I do think MSU can take advantage of the Illini’s soft rushing defense, though. I also like this matchup for MSU’s defense, even without Bachie. Illinois is not a team that can move the ball downfield or put together long drives, as it ranks dead last in terms of time of possession in the Big Ten (26:44 per game).

Additionally, the Illini have given up the most sacks in the Big Ten this season (28), while the Spartans have gotten to the quarterback 22 times (fifth in Big Ten). Illinois is also the second most penalized team in the conference, and ranks 12th out of 14 B1G teams in third down conversion rate (35 percent), first downs gained (157) and first downs allowed (188).

I know that Illinois is playing well right now, but I really like this matchup for MSU, and I just don’t see the Spartans — despite being banged up and on a brutal losing streak— dropping this one at home.

For more on Illinois, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.

What do you think?


Who wins?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Michigan State
    (45 votes)
  • 60%
    (70 votes)
115 votes total Vote Now