The Michigan State Spartans travel to Champaign to take on the No. 16-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini for a matchup under the lights on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Big Ten Network.
Michigan State will return to the field after a loss to the Michigan Wolverines and the fallout from the postgame fracas, which resulted in eight players being suspended.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker will not provide the public with a depth chart, therefore after viewing the previous game and reading reports (there has been many) about the roster, here are my predictions for the MSU starters and reserves against Illinois — even with the team down several starters and contributors.
Starter: Payton Thorne
Backup: Noah Kim
Michigan State will be starting Thorne again as he gives the Spartans the best opportunity to win and bowl hopes still exist. That being said, as the season continues to spin out of control, the likelihood that Thorne is replaced by Kim and/or true freshman Katin Houser (much less likely) increases. Statistically, Illinois has the best defense in college football, allowing not even nine points per game, and yielding only six touchdowns thus far. Considering the situation, this could be a space where we see a replacement under center before the finish.
Starter: Jalen Berger
Backup: Elijah Collins, Jarek Broussard
The ground attack remains largely stifled, ineffective in providing any consistent gains and incapable of providing balance. We’ll see the trio of ball carriers again, perhaps they will be more involved in the passing game as a wrinkle left largely unused so far this season.
Starters: Jayden Reed, Keon Coleman, Tre Mosley
Backups: Germie Bernard, Montorie Foster, Cade McDonald, Christian Fitzpatrick
The wide receivers are a known commodity and remain the most probable path to pulling off an upset. I foresee no surprises with this group.
Starter: Daniel Barker
Backup: Tyler Hunt, Maliq Carr
The lack of production from the tight end position is one of the more disappointing (and troubling) aspects of this offense. I would assume Barker will get the most action as he is facing his former club in Illinois and was named a captain this week. Hunt will continue utilization as a blocker. Carr teases with potential, however his ceiling goes unrealized due to his poor blocking.
Starter: Jarrett Horst
Backup: Brandon Baldwin
The starting five on the offensive line looks to fluctuate for the first time since the season opened as J.D. Duplain and Matt Carrick both experienced injuries in the last outing against Michigan. It’s possible Duplain and Carrick both do start, but in the event either was a scratch, Brian Greene would be the first replacement. Otherwise, Jarrett Horst, Duplain, Nick Samac, Matt Carrick and Spencer Brown would be the the first unit as per usual. Perhaps Geno VanDeMark gets the first start in his career — he played in the second half against the Wolverines. It would be beneficial if the two-deep, particularly within the offensive line, received an expanded role.
Starter: J.D. Duplain (status uncertain)
Backup: Geno VanDeMark
Starter: Nick Samac
Backup: Dallas Fincher
Starter: Matt Carrick (status uncertain)
Backup: Brian Greene
Starter: Spencer Brown
Backup: Ethan Boyd
Starters: Jacob Slade, Simeon Barrow
Backup: Derrick Harmon, Maverick Hansen, Jalen Hunt, Alex VanSumeren, Dashaun Mallory
Again, much will be asked of the defensive interior as the Spartans will face yet another opponent that will lean heavily upon running the ball — Illinois running back Chase Brown leads the nation in rushing yards (1,208). The defensive tackles collectively may be as healthy as they been the entirety of the season. They will be tested.
Starters: Michael Fletcher, Avery Dunn
Backup: Chase Carter, Jeff Pietrowski (status uncertain), Khris Bogle (status uncertain)
It’s possible Michigan State will be without FIVE defensive ends. So that’s neat. Zion Young, Itayvion “Tank” Brown and Brandon Wright were three of the eight players suspended, while Jeff Pietrowski and Khris Bogle have missed several games due to Injuries. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for one or both of the injured to return, but it’s been a difficult season for optimism. Regardless, I expect Michael Fletcher and Avery Dunn to get the starts, Fletcher got the nod versus the Wolverines while Avery has gotten snaps sporadically.
Starters: Cal Haladay, Aaron Brule, Ben VanSumeren
Backups: Ma’a Gaoteote, Carson Casteel
With Jacoby Windmon suspended and MSU essentially forced to use a 4-3 alignment against a mauling team that runs the ball at will, things are going to get dicey. Haladay and Brule likely need to play crucial roles on Saturday.
OK, so the best defensive player this season, who has assigned to the linebackers the past few weeks is now suspended. Now what? Odds are Ben VanSumeren reports back to starter status, he’s the most experienced and his skill set favors a run heavy opponent. Gaoteote will either be the first replacement or the third starter. Perhaps we’ll see a new linebacker such as Carson Casteel or Quavian Carter. (I’m not going to lie, at this point I’m checking for proper spelling of names...)
Starters: Ameer Speed, Charles Brantley
Backups: Ronald Williams, Marqui Lowery (status uncertain)
The usual faces in the usual places. The Illini are efficient in the passing game — but not prolific. Filling run gaps and maintaining contain will be at a premium.
Starter: Dillon Tatum
Backup: Chester Kimbrough
Angelo Grose, the most experienced player who has seen time at nickel back, and Justin White, a previous starter, are both suspended. Sink or swim time for true Freshman Dillon Tatum. Kimbrough can also soak up snaps. Fortunately, the nickel back position should be lightly utilized against Illinois.
Starters: Xavier Henderson, Kendell Brooks
Backups: Dillon Tatum, Jaden Mangham (status uncertain)
Henderson and Brooks are a solid duo, particularly against the run. Tatum is the likely reserve for this game at nickel/safety. It should be noted the wind is predicted to be gusty and strong, so passing attempts could be less frequent than even the norm for the Fighting Illini.
Starter: Jack Stone
Backup: Ben Patton, Stephen Rusnak
I’m baffled at this point with the kicker — who handles what duties is apparently dictated totally by what happens on the practice field, away from the eyes of the public. Wind, again, will be a significant determining factor in this game, so we may once again not even see a field goal attempted from MSU’s end.
Starter: Bryce Baringer
Backup: Ryan Eckley, Evan Morris
If not for Baringer, the Spartans may have the worst special teams unit amongst the Power Five conferences. Fortunately, MSU does have him, and he’s one of the best punters in the nation.
Starter: Jayden Reed
Backup: Jarek Broussard/Germie Bernard/Cade McDonald
Repeat. If there are opportunities to be made in the return game, I encourage the player to take them — a special teams big play or two would be massive against Illinois.
Starter: Hank Pepper (status uncertain)
Backup: Michael Donovan
oh boy, last week’s long snapping was a disaster with Pepper still out with injury. Let’s hope he can return this week. :-/