The Michigan State Spartans bounced back in a big way on Saturday, upsetting the 16th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini by a final score of 23-15. It was the first ranked win of the season for MSU, and was Mel Tucker’s fourth ranked road win in the last four seasons, which is the most by any FBS coach in that span.
While this season hasn’t gone the way Michigan State hoped, a win like that is one to be proud of, and it kept hope alive for the Spartans to make a bowl game for the second time under Mel Tucker.
Let’s dive into the takeaways.
Backs against the wall, the Spartans didn’t quit
It would have been very easy for the Spartans to fall apart this week. With eight players suspended after the incident at Michigan, and how deflating the loss in Ann Arbor was, Michigan State could have found itself in some trouble on Saturday against a strong Illinois team.
The Spartans didn’t let that happen, though. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but Michigan State held on and picked up an impressive road win at a critical time. Those are the types of wins that teams can build on, and with two winnable home games coming up in the next two weeks (versus Rutgers and versus Indiana), a bowl game is within reach for the Spartans. After everything the team has been through, playing somewhere in December would be a satisfying way to end the season, and would be vital for the development of younger players given the extra practice time and extra competition.
Shorthanded defense steps up
The defense played one of its better games this season on Saturday, especially considering how shorthanded the unit was. Several defensive starters/contributors, including star linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon and starting nickel back Angelo Grose, have been suspended indefinitely following the tunnel incident in Ann Arbor. Again, it would’ve been easy for the defense to come out flat and deflated, but they didn’t.
Outside of the long touchdown given up early, the Spartans played a strong game defensively. Especially considering how shorthanded the team was. MSU held a talented running back in Chase Brown to 136 yards on 33 attempts (4.1 yards per carry) and kept him out of the end zone. For comparison, Brown — who leads the NCAA in rushing yardage (now at 1,344 following the game versus Michigan State) — entered the game averaging 151 rushing yards per game.
The Spartans also recorded three sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered one of them, which is something the defense was able to do well early in the season. If the Spartans want to continue to build on this performance, that will need to be a key focus going forward.
Michigan State got a much needed win in an unlikely place on Saturday. With all the drama that surrounded the loss in Ann Arbor, it would have been very easy for the team to come out flat against Illinois. But, the Spartans fought hard, closed out a big upset win on the road and are now in position to make a bowl game for the second-straight year.
It wasn’t the prettiest win — and some of the late-game decision-making from Mel Tucker and the coaching staff was questionable (and that isn’t the first time we’ve seen that this season) — but I think you take any win you can get in a season like the one Michigan State is having. With Rutgers and Indiana next up on the schedule before a trip to Happy Valley to end the regular season against Penn State, the Spartans are in a good spot to make a bowl game and close out the season strong after the tough start.