The Illinois football team feels good about itself after its convincing win over Penn State last Saturday. The confidence it gained will be tested severely at Michigan State however. The Spartans have many advantages that make them favorites.
Illinois is their Homecoming opponent, and they are riding high after defeating in-state rival Michigan for the third straight year. They have a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who has the all-time MSU career lead in passing efficiency. They have a powerful two-pronged running attack with Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. Their defense is athletic and strong. And their special teams are ranked high also.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook discusses why the Michigan State offense is so difficult to defend.
"They're pretty good because they are balanced. Being able to run the ball like that, what that does is (open up) the play action, bootlegs and things like that."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will have his hands full calling the right alignments. Michigan State's balance between run and pass makes it especially hard to defend.
"We try to stop what they do best and focus on that. Michigan State does both things equally well. So they keep you from being able to do certain things because you can't put your players in the best positions.
"There's gonna be a lot of plays where our guys are gonna have to win one-on-one matchup battles. It'll be one of the first if not the first times where we put them in positions where they have to win. So we'll just see how that goes."
Illini linebackers could be confused at times whether to expect run or pass. Inside linebacker coach Dan Disch won't allow his guys to be tentative.
"We'll have our hands full. We're gonna have to focus on the run and react to the pass. Unless we're playing man and you have to watch your man. We have to slow down the run. They have one of the top running attacks in the country. They'll mix it up, but if you stop the run you can kind of predict the pass.
"We're not gonna let them hesitate. We're gonna have them play fast and hard. Zero in on the run and let the cards fall where they may."
Middle linebacker Martez Wilson looks forward to the competition.
"We've got to be really sound and disciplined. Cousins can really throw, and they have two great running backs that they like to switch up. They're very versatile, so we have to play the whole 60 minutes of Big 10 football. Go out there and hit."
Illini safeties will undoubtedly be susceptible to play action. If they bite on the run fake, they can be burned long. It is doubly tough when Cousins bootlegs as if to run and then stops to pass. Defensive backs who come up to stop the run leave receivers open. Trulon Henry is aware of the problem.
"It's gonna be a tough game. You have to watch a lot of film and read our keys as dbs to get the run-pass fake and see which one is a go. It's gonna be a pretty exciting and challenging game.
"They're talented, they have a lot of firepower. They can do a lot of things in the air and on the ground. They're a dangerous team offensively."
MSU is also dangerous defensively. Linebacker Greg Jones is a special talent and has the accolades to prove it. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has watched enough film to be leery of Jones.
"He flies to the ball. It always seems like he's around the ball. He plays over top of his pads in a football position. He never gets knocked around too bad and is always ready to go in pass coverage and coming downhill on runs.
"I didn't realize until this week how good he was in pass coverage, being able to get some good depth on his drops. And when he gets his hands on it, he's able to create some plays. It seems like he has been playing at Michigan State forever because he's been doing good things for a long time."
Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is impressed with Jones also.
"He's a good football player. He makes a lot of plays for them. On third downs they like to line him up outside and rush him off the edge. We've got to make sure we get after him physically. I think we just want a physically tough, hard-nosed football game. If we can do that, then we've got a great chance."
Athletic defenders for MSU could give the Illini fits, especially if they don't gain consistent yardage on first and second downs.
"They'll pressure on first down and so forth, but their linebacker gets a lot of his sacks on third down," Zook explains. "You'd like to keep the third down situations to third-and-short, third-and-medium if you can. They're a defense that chases the football. They're experienced and play extremely hard."
Petrino feels he has ways of exploiting MSU coverages. He has faced Dantonio's defenses before.
"They're an over defense, what people call a quarter press. It's a little different scheme. It's a scheme that I played against Cincinnati when I was at Louisville. So I've played against them a lot. We understand the scheme, now we've just got to execute it."
Last week, Penn State played zone coverage exclusively in the secondary, allowing A.J. Jenkins openings underneath. He says he faces a different scheme this week.
"Michigan State does a lot of press coverage, something like what Illinois plays. We're gonna be man-to-man most of the time. At least, that's the way they are on film. They may change it when they play us."
On the surface, it seems the Illini have little chance Saturday. The odds makers favor the Spartans by at least a touchdown. But without arguing overall talent and coaching, the Illini may have a couple advantages of their own.
First of all, Michigan State may suffer an emotional letdown after so many weeks playing at fever pitch. The Michigan rivalry alone takes much energy and focus. Coach Mark Dantonio is recovering nicely from a mild heart attack and should be more involved this week. So perhaps there will be less incentive for another peak performance.
Plus, it is possible the Spartans will take the Illini lightly. After all, MSU won easily in Champaign last year, a season the Illini appeared weak and ineffectual. Some Spartan players may assume victory without putting out maximum effort.
But even if they are totally focused, the Illini are ready to take on the challenge. MSU may be favored, but the Illini expect success. A sampling of their thoughts demonstrates that.
* Wilson: "Confidence is high. Now we've got the Spartans coming up this week. They're undefeated as well, so I think confidence will match confidence. We'll just have to go up there and showcase our talent."
* Scheelhaase: "I think we're pretty excited about the things we've been doing, especially recently. We feel like we have a good chance to go up there and do something like we did last week."
* Henry: "We know we're good, but on Saturday we have to go out and prove it to the world. It's no more having faith or believing in ourself, we have to show it."
* Petrino: "They're a good football team, they're undefeated. But we're a good football team too. We've just to go out there and play hard and give ourselves a chance to win."
It will be a tough, physical game. The Illini will need to match strength with strength, quickness with quickness. Zook says to expect a typically rugged Big 10 encounter.
"I told the guys that, 'You have to put your big boy pads on this week.'"