Spartans No. 1 defense arrives for Homecoming

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Illinois (3-3, 0-2) vs. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0)
Oct. 26, 2013 // 2:36 p.m. CDT // ABC/ESPN2
Champaign, Ill. // Memorial Stadium (60,670)
Television Broadcast: The Illinois/Michigan State game will be televised nationally
with regional coverage on ABC and reverse-mirror national coverage on ESPN2.
Illinois players to watch: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Josh Ferguson, LB Jonathan Brown, S Earnest Thomas, WR Ryan Lankford, DE Tim Kynard, TE Matt Lacosse
Michigan State players to watch:RB Jeremy Langford, QB Connor Cook, Flanker MacGarett Kings Jr., LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen, CB Darqueze Dennard, Safety Kurtis Drummond, DE
It's Homecoming weekend in Champaign, as the Fighting Illini are back in action Saturday afternoon against Michigan State. Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit faces his toughest test yet - the Spartans come to town with the top ranked defense in the nation.
"They are relentless," Cubit said about the Spartans' defense. "And it's not just one guy, it's all of them. You just don't see a weakness. Our kids will just have to play good, fundamental football. . I have my work cut out for me and everyone on the offense has their work cut out for them."
Offense hasn't been the problem. Illinois is averaging over 35 points per game. Last week against Wisconsin and their No. 6 ranked defense nationally, the Illini amassed 391 total yards in the 56-32 loss.
Cubit and his wide open system has breathed new life into the Illini attack, and he says they made more strides in practice this week leading up to the contest vs. the Spartans.
"The expectations here are that we are going to move the football," Cubit said. "I think we are pretty close. We aren't exactly where we need to be, but we're getting a lot better. Now we have to play No. 1. If you don't like challenges then don't even bother coming out. That's what college football is all about. I'm excited about it."
When Illinois has the ball
Patience and discipline; that's the formula for moving the ball against a Michigan State defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation and are yielding just 228 yards per game. No unit is playing with more confidence than the Spartan's defense. They will fly around out there, and look not only to stop Illinois but put points on the board. Illinois has to execute, take care of the football, and not get rattled early on.
Typical of great defenses, once the Spartans get momentum on that side of the football they can overwhelm you. It's a total team effort. Illinois somehow has to punch them in the mouth early, and will need a great game from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, including a couple of big plays.
Scheelhaase took a step forward with a solid performance in last week's loss to Wisconsin. He still needs to hang in the pocket a bit longer when the pressure comes, but he shook off the rough game against Nebraska on Oct. 5, completely 20-29 passes for 249 yards. He needs the same kind of effort against Michigan State and somehow has to find the end zone. Keeping DE Shilique Calhoun out of the offensive backfield will be a tall task. Calhoun is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with 3 (1 pick-six, and 2 fumble returns). Two tight end sets could help to contain him.
There really isn't any good way to come at Michigan State. They are equally efficient against the pass as the run. The Spartans allow just opposing QB's a scant 45% completion rate and just 4.7 yards per completion. Darqueze Dennard is a lock-down cornerback and future NFL draft pick. Junior safety Kurtis Drummond is second on the team in tackles.
Makeable 3rd downs will be huge for Illinois. RB Josh Ferguson has been getting it done, but it's time for Donovonn Young to step up and grind out some yards inside the tackles. MSU will spy on Ferguson - so Young has to make some plays.
Remarkably, the Michigan State defense has not allowed more than 92 yards rushing by any opponent this season, and they yield just 2.2 yards per carry. Illinois will have to find a way to top those numbers. Even if the Illini O-line gets movement up front, how do you get to the second tier defenders? It doesn't get any better than the Spartan line-backing duo of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen.
The list of top defenders goes on and one - these guys are flat out loaded.
You can't set up the pass with the run against Michigan State - it has to be the other way around. Connect on some quick hitters and loosen them up. The model is Indiana - the Hoosiers threw the ball almost exclusively on 1st down vs. Michigan State and managed 28 points. 28 could be the magic number for Illinois on Saturday.
The X-Factor:RB Donovonn Young - time for DY to kick it up a notch.
When Michigan State has the ball
Though they aren't a juggernaut, expect the Michigan State offense to bounce back some after a sub-par performance last week in a 14-0 win over Purdue (294 yards and 1 TD). The previous week, the Spartans put up 42 points against Indiana. Junior RB Jeremy Langford rushed for 109 yards and 4 TD's vs. the Hoosiers. This game should fall somewhere in between. If the Illini's struggling defense can hold Michigan State to 3 touchdowns or less, Illinois should be in the game in the fourth quarter.
The Spartans are balanced offensively and will rely on field position and ball control - they lead the Big Ten in time of possession (34:11) - an off-shoot of their dominating defense. As intimidating as the MSU defense is, you want them on the field as much as possible - 3-and-out is a must. Seven games into the season, and we really haven't seen the Illini defense shut anyone down. This is a good week to start.
It starts up front for the Illini. The young athletes (Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Robbie Bain) have to take the next step and earn more snaps. While DT Austin Teitsma had his best game of the season vs. Wisconsin, his running mate at NT Jake Howe continues to struggle. Something has to give. Someone has to be able to keep the offensive linemen off of the Illini linebackers and free them up to make plays at the line of scrimmage.
The Michigan State passing game behind QB Connor Cook doesn't strike fear into you, but they also don't turn it over (2-INT's) or give up many sacks (4). Illinois CB V'Angelo Bentley is out with an ankle, leaving true freshmen Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap to fill in.
The corners will be key to the Illini rushing defense as much as the pass defense - they have struggled in run support vs. big, physical receivers, and MSU has 3 of them in Toney Lippett, Benny Fowler, and Aaron Burbridge. 5-foot-10 flanker MacGarett Kings Jr. is the leading receiver with 25 catches and 287 yards in what is essentially a dink-and-dunk passing game. The Spartans' 5.4 yards per completion is a Big Ten low. That's good news for Illinois. If they can take away the big plays, the MSU offense has a tendency to stall.
All the pre-game chatter is about the Michigan State defense, but it's the Illinois defense that will determine the outcome on Saturday. They need to turn a corner. If they can, the Illini season could trend in a positive direction.
The X-Factor:LB Mason Monheim - Langford isn't as shifty as Wisconsin and Nebraska backs. MM should be in position to make a lot of plays.
Keys to the game
1. Field position - Spartans "D" smells blood when they get your backs against the wall
2. Chunk plays - Long drives and red zone touchdowns will be hard to come by
3. String out the running plays - get in your gap and make Langford run east -west.
4. Poise - Illini have faced tough defenses, but this group will shake you up. Can't cough up the football.
5. The kicking game - no shanked punts, and don't leave 3 points on the field when you're in range.
Sooner or later, Michigan State's inability to find the end zone is going to bite them. This could be the week. Emotions will run high for Illinois on homecoming, and the Spartans could be looking ahead to No. 22 Michigan and No. 24 Nebraska. Upset time? Maybe, but predicting it is tough. Going with the favored Spartans, but tentatively.
Michigan State 24 Illinois 17
Game Notes
• Sophomore running back Josh Ferguson continues to lead the nation in receiving yards per game by a running back, averaging 57.7 yards per game.
• Illinois has an all-time record of 44-56-2 on Homecoming.
• This week's game marks the 45th meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Spartans and the first at Memorial Stadium since 2009. Illinois has only faced Michigan State twice in the last six years.
• Michigan State quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Brad Salem is the younger brother of Illini running backs coach and special teams coordinator Tim Salem.
• Through seven games, Michigan State's defense ranks No. 1 in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense (228.0 yards per game), rushing defense (59.1 ypg.), pass efficiency defense (88.41 rating) and first downs defense (13.4 pg.).
• Senior linebacker Max Bullough was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after recording a season-high 10 tackles in Michigan State's 14-0 win over Purdue.