Fighting the Illinois Fighting Illini: Previewing the MSU Spartans


On Saturday afternoon, Illinois concludes its brutal State Stretch with a visit to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans.

Off to an impressive 6-0 start, Michigan State has moved up to #13 in the polls following two impressive wins against ranked opponents.

With head coach Mark Dantonio back with the team following a heart attack that caused him to miss two games, the Spartans are looking for their first 7-0 start since 1966, a year when they won the National Championship.

In MSU’s way is an Illinois team that is beaming with confidence after demolishing Penn State on the road.

The Illini won’t make it easy for the Spartans as both teams look to notch another key conference win.

How Michigan State Fared in 2009 and So Far This Season

Michigan State fell short of its expectations in 2009, with a very talented team trudging along to a 6-7 record.

The Spartans stumbled early in 2009, getting shocked at home by Central Michigan and then losing a heart breaker at Notre Dame.

MSU rebounded to beat rival Michigan for a second straight year and conquered a disappointing Illini team 24-14 in Champaign.

Michigan State almost pulled off a huge upset over #6 Iowa at home, but the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown as time expired to quash the upset bid. The Spartans would finish the season 6-6 and face Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Michigan State put up a good fight but eventually fell 41-31.

In 2010, the Spartans have avoided collapsing under the high preseason expectations and are one of only two undefeated teams remaining in the conference.

With every win, the Spartans have looked more and more impressive.

After a thrilling overtime victory on a fake field goal against Notre Dame, MSU has gone on to beat two teams ranked in the top 20 by double digits.

Recent history gives the edge to the Spartans, as does their play thus far this season.

However, Illinois has proved that it is a much better team this season, and Michigan State is vulnerable after two physical games against tough opponents.

This weekend will definitely be worth watching.

Illinois – Michigan State Series History

Illinois has played the Spartans 43 times since they joined the Big Ten in 1950.

Up until 1995, the series was very close, with Illinois leading Michigan State in the series 16-14-2. However, since 1995, Illinois is 1-10 against the Spartans, and most of the games have not been close, with the Spartans holding an average margin of victory of more than 18 points in the past 11 meetings.

The Spartans have already shown this season that they are capable of putting points on the board, averaging more than 35 points a game while holding their opponents to less than 19.

However, Illinois has proven it can make big stops on defense and has not been out of a game so far through five contests.

The Spartans are riding confident with an undefeated record and the knowledge that they are favored in 5 of their next 6 games.

On the other side of the coin, Illinois is feeling good after its first win at Penn State and looking for a big upset to continue to build on a strong season.

Sparks will fly this weekend, and the team left standing at the end may just surprise a few people.

Key Matchups

Illinois Special Teams vs. Michigan State Kickoff Coverage

Illinois fumbled the ball on three kick returns last weekend.

While the Illini were able to get stops in the red zone and still beat Penn State, do not expect a similar result if the same thing happens against the Spartans.

Michigan State has a very talented offense, both on the ground and through the air, and if the Spartans get to start inside the opponents 10, it is a pretty safe bet that they are scoring a touchdown.

Even when Illinois has held onto the ball, it has not had very many good returns this season.

Good starting position would really help the Illini greatly.

Kirk Cousins vs. Illinois Secondary

Cousins is currently ranked 9th in the nation with a 167.5 passer rating and averaging more than 200 passing yards a game.

The Illinois defense has proved to be a force to be reckoned with thus far in 2010. Even with injured corner back Terry Hawthorne likely back for the game, it is still going to take an airtight Illini secondary to keep the Spartans from blasting them deep.

Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure vs. Greg Jones and Eric Gordon

Scheelhaase and Leshoure account for almost all of the Illinois offense, and both have been outstanding so far this year.

This week the dynamic tandem of Jones and Gordon stands in the Scheelhaase’s and Leshoure’s way.

The two linebackers have more than 680 combined tackles in their career, a stat that leads the nation.

Jones is a leading defensive player of the year candidate who is tops in the conference in tackles.

The Illini duo will have to fight for every yard against these two players and may have to pull a few more tricks out of its sleeves.

The key for Scheelhaase is not to turn the ball over, while Leshoure will be asked to convert some key 3rd downs.

If both players can accomplish these goals, Illinois should be in this game near the end of the fourth quarter.

If one or both of them struggle, the game could get ugly fast.

Three Players to Watch

Running back Mikel Leshoure

Leshoure is 18th in the nation in rushing yards despite being a whole game behind most teams.  He is averaging over 119 yards a game this season and is a top candidate for the Doak Walker award.

Leshoure will be called to get some tough yards on the ground as the coaches will likely be reluctant to allow Scheelhaase to throw often against Michigan State’s tough defense.

Leshoure has come up big in every game so far this season, and you can expect the same from him this weekend in East Lansing.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne

Hawthorne was one of the few bright spots on the 2009 Illini, and there were high expectations for him heading into the season before an injury sustained in camp caused him to miss the team’s first four games.

Seeing some limited duty against Penn State, Hawthorne was in for about 10 snaps but did not do anything noticeable.

This weekend he should have a much more prominent role.

While Justin Green, a running back who was converted to corner back the week before the Missouri loss, has done a tremendous job filling in for Hawthorne, the added depth will only help the defense as it tries to contain the MSU’s prolific passing game.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase

While much of Scheelhaase’s role will depend on how much the coaching staff allows him to throw the ball, what he does when given the opportunity will be something to watch.

Scheelhaase has already faced several strong defenses and done very well for the most part.

While Scheelhaase has not had much success in the deep passing game, he has been effective with the a 6 to 7-yard pass, which is usually all it takes to keep the chains moving.

Scheelhaase was spoiled with excellent protection against Penn State, but expect the Spartans to dial up the blitzing to try and force him to scramble and make rushed plays.

Scheelhaase just needs to stay calm and play smart.

If he can do, Illinois has a real chance in this game.


Until tomorrow and the Thursday Cram Session.