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Game Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

To say this season has been a major disappointment for the Michigan State football team would be an understatement. After an 11-2 campaign in 2021, including a Peach Bowl victory, the Spartans have followed that up with a miserable 3-5 start (and 1-4 record in the Big Ten Conference) thus far in the 2022 campaign.

Michigan State will look to get back on track this weekend, but has another daunting task ahead. MSU travels to Champaign to take on No. 16 Illinois on Saturday. The game is scheduled to kick off at 3:40 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

Michigan State will be down eight defensive players due to suspensions stemming from the the ugly postgame tunnel incident in Ann Arbor following MSU’s 29-7 loss to the rival Michigan Wolverines. The Spartans will be without several contributors and starters, including linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, defensive end Zion Young, defensive end Brandon Wright, safety/nickel back Angelo Grose and others.

While MSU and head coach Mel Tucker made the swift and correct choice to punish those it believes to be responsible for the actions that took place at Michigan Stadium, it certainly doesn’t help matters for the already struggling Spartans on the field.

Meanwhile, Illinois has not only been one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten this season, but perhaps in the entire nation. The Fighting Illini enter Saturday’s contest with a 7-1 overall record, including a 4-1 mark in Big Ten play, and currently lead the Big Ten West.

Illinois has gotten to this point thanks to an extremely strong defense that ranks No. 1 in the country in total defense (224.5 yards allowed per game), No. 1 in scoring defense (8.88 points per game) and No. 1 in SP+ rankings (“a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency”). Offensively, the Illini are led by running back Chase Brown, the leading rusher in the FBS with 1,208 yards, and the efficient play of quarterback Tommy DeVito.

It comes as no surprise that Michigan State once again enters a game as a big underdog, as Illinois is currently a 16-point favorite, according to the DraftKings Sportsbook.

A preview of the Big Ten divisional crossover matchup is below.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2022 Record — 3-5 (1-4 in Big Ten)

2022 Offense (per game averages) — 336.9 total yards, 239.4 passing yards, 97.5 rushing yards

2022 Defense (per game averages) — 424.9 total yards allowed, 256.3 passing yards allowed, 168.6 rushing yards allowed

2022 Cumulative Points Scored: 196 (24.5 ppg)

2022 Cumulative Points Allowed: 219 (27.38 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 56th

2022 Record — 7-1 (4-1 in Big Ten)

2022 Offense (per game averages) — 409.6 total yards, 212.1 passing yards, 197.5 rushing yards

2022 Defense (per game averages) — 224.5 yards allowed, 148.9 passing yards allowed, 75.6 rushing yards allowed

2022 Cumulative Points Scored: 208 (26.0 ppg)

2022 Cumulative Points Allowed: 71 (8.88 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 24th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Michigan State leads 26-19-2
Current streak: Illinois has won the past two games
Last Michigan State win: Oct. 26, 2013 (42-3)
Last Illinois win: Nov. 9, 2019 (37-34)
Michigan State all-time record: 724-477-44 (.599)
Illinois all-time record: 626-614-50 (.505)

Uniform Watch:

Michigan State:

Michigan State will rock the traditional away look with white jerseys, green pants and green helmets. The helmets include a white Spartan head logo on each side.

A closer look:


No word on Illinois’ uniforms as of press time.

Previous Game Results

Michigan 29, Michigan State 7

Given how serious things got after the game with the aforementioned tunnel incident, and how much of the discourse since the game has revolved around that situation, it is easy to forgot that an actual game was played.

Michigan State’s defense hung tough with Michigan for much of the game, but the MSU offense did not hold up its end of the bargain. Michigan played a dominant second half and held the Spartans to a mere seven points on the night.

Michigan State got the ball to start, and moved it nicely, picking up 24 yards combined on the first two plays. However, penalties derailed the drive.

On Michigan’s first drive, wide receiver Cornelius Johnson fumbled after Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson jarred the ball loose. It was recovered by defensive lineman DaShaun Mallory, giving possession back to the Spartans.

However, Michigan State could not capitalize, turning the ball over on downs in four plays. On the ensuing drive, Michigan kicked the first of many field goals from Jake Moody, and the Wolverines led 3-0 in the first quarter.

Michigan State would follow that up with a touchdown, however, As quarterback Payton Thorne connected with wide receiver Keon Coleman for two big plays, including a a 26-yard touchdown pass. MSU took a 7-3 advantage, however, that would be the last time the Spartans found the scoreboard.

Michigan answered with a touchdown drive of its own. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy found running back Blake Corum on a two-yard touch pass to give Michigan a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.

Moody would add a 25-yard field goal before halftime and go into the break up 13-7. The second half was all Wolverines.

Michigan opened the third quarter with possession and put together a long drive. Ultimately, Michigan State’s defense once again forced a field goal, which Moody hit to make it 16-7.

Moody would make yet another field goal in the third quarter, and then again in the early fourth quarter (a 54-yarder no less) to eventually extend Michigan’s lead to 22-7 with less than 15 minutes remaining in the game.

The Michigan State offense then proceed to go three-and-out, a common theme on the night, but this time disaster happened. Punter Bryce Baringer couldn’t field a poor snap and was tackled for a 21-yard loss at Michigan State’s own 8-yard line. Two plays later, Corum — who had a huge day on the ground — punched it into the end zone for Michigan.

Michigan led 29-7 at that point and that would eventually be the final score.

For more on the loss to Michigan please read our full game recap, check out the postgame quotes from Mel Tucker and the players or take a visit to our Film Room.

Illinois 26, Nebraska 9

Illinois did what Illinois does — dominated time of possession (38:13-21:47), played relentless defense (forcing four turnovers) and rode a strong ground game on offense (188 yards).

Quarterback Tommy DeVito and wide receiver Isaiah Williams got the ball rolling for Illinois with a 46-yard touchdown pass on the Illini’s opening possession. The extra point was missed, leaving the score 6-0.

Nebraska later added a field goal in the opening quarter to make the score 6-3. Then, in the second quarter, the Cornhuskers would actually take the lead on a 56-yard pass from quarterback Casey Thompson to tight end Travis Vokolek. The extra point was missed, but Nebraska took a 9-6 lead.

It was all Fighting Illini from there. Later in the second quarter, running back Chase Brown scored on a one-yard touchdown and DeVito hit Brown for a 12-yard passing touchdown. Illinois took a 20-9 lead over Nebraska into halftime.

The only scoring in the second half came from kicker Caleb Griffin, who tacked on two field goals for Illinois, but that was all that was needed. The Illini defeated the Cornhuskers 26-9 to improve to 7-1.

Key Matchups

Michigan State defensive front versus Chase Brown/Illinois offensive line: We’ve talked about how Michigan State will be without linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon and several others this weekend. That does not bode well for the Spartans against the nation’s leading rusher. Brown has had an incredible season and probably isn’t talked about enough. Brown averages 151 rushing yards per game, while Illinois ranks in the top-25 nationally as a team with 197.6 rushing yards per game. Josh McCray is another name to watch in the Illini’s backfield as he gets healthier. Meanwhile, MSU allows 168.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks just 97th nationally. With all of those players out, Illinois could control the ground game, much like Michigan did.

Michigan State’s offense versus Illinois defense: This is basic and obvious, but as mentioned, Illinois has the top-rated defense in several statistical categories, and ranks in the top-five of many others. The Illii have only allowed six touchdowns this season, the fewest in the nation. Credit has to be given to head coach Bret Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Meanwhile, Michigan State scored just seven points last week against Michigan. This looks like an awful matchup on paper. The Spartans have to find some way to get into the end zone. Quarterback Payton Thorne, running backs Elijah Collins and Jalen Berger, wide receivers Keon Coleman, Jayden Reed and Tre Mosley, and tight ends Maliq Carr and Daniel Barker (playing against his former team) all need to step up and make plays.

Tommy DeVito/Illinois wide receivers versus Michigan State secondary: Illinois makes its money through the ground attack with Brown, but DeVito, a Syracuse transfer, is a highly efficient quarterback. The Illini don’t really have a dominant wide receiver, but Isaiah Williams has been solid with 56 catches for 439 yards and three touchdowns. After struggling mightily early in the season, it seems that Michigan State’s passing defense has significantly improved over the past couple of games. In the last two games, the Spartans held Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz to just 131 passing yards and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy to just 167 yards through the air. DeVito isn’t known for airing it out, averaging less than 200 yards per game passing, but he has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions and completed 72.5 percent of his passes. MSU will already have its hands full defending the run, the Spartans cannot allow DeVito to be them as well.

Game Info

Time: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time (kickoff scheduled for 3:40 p.m.)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Location: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
Weather expectations: Mostly cloudy, temperatures around 58 degrees at kickoff, high winds possible, blowing southwest at up to 27 miles per hour
DraftKings Line: Michigan State +16


It seems that the weather could play a factor in this one, with winds reaching close to 30 miles per hour. I am not sure if that hurts the Fighting Illini’s strategy of pounding the rock on offense and playing suffocating defense, though.

Michigan State will need to play like it did last week against Michigan, even without the suspended players. It was a “bend-don’t-break” style, intentionally or not, and Michigan had to settle for several field goals as opposed to finding the end zone after getting into the red zone. Illinois’ offense isn’t as good overall as Michigan’s, but the rushing attack is a strength. MSU will need to force more punts than it did last week. Also, the Illini have struggled to score touchdowns once reaching the red zone this season, so that bodes well for the Spartans.

As I mentioned, the concern for the Spartans is figuring out how to score points. The offense has been inept at times, especially last week, and the Illini give up 8.9 points per game. Perhaps tight end Daniel Barker will score a game-winning touchdown for Michigan State against his former school, Illinois, this time around.

This isn’t your father’s Illinois team. This is a damn good squad with one of the best defenses in the nation. It is going to be tough sledding for Michigan State.

For more analysis on Illinois, please read our “Get to Know the Opponent” article and our “5 Questions with The Champaign Room” conversation.


Will Michigan State get a road upset over Illinois?

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