Illinois dominated Michigan State in the first half. It controlled time of possession 19 minutes to 11, held the vaunted Spartan running attack to 4 meager yards and held a 6-3 lead going into halftime. However, the Illini offense made too many mistakes; MSU took advantage to pull away at the end.
The Spartans are athletic and aggressive. They may have come out a little flat the first half after their big win against in-state rival Michigan, but they had enough in their tanks to regroup at the half.
"It was a very physical game," Illinois coach Ron Zook said afterward. "They're a good football team. Our team didn't play 60 minutes. We thought at halftime they were gonna come out ready to go. They did and we didn't."
Aided by a double penalty that moved the chains 25 yards, the Illini sustained their first drive by mixing Mikel Leshoure runs and a 12 yard pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins. The drive stalled at the MSU four yard line, where Derek Dimke continued his fine kicking by booting a 21 yard field goal to put the Illini up 3-0.
The Illini defense held the Spartans to two first downs in their first three possessions. After Marcus Hyde collected the first of three interceptions from Scheelhaase, the Illini defense held them without a first down.
On their fourth possession, MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins found receiver Mark Dell for gains of 20 and 21 yards to provide good field position. However, big plays by defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Corey Liuget helped force a Dan Conroy 37 yard field goal that tie the game.
The Illini accumulated three first downs before punting the ball back to the Spartans. Keyshawn Martin muffed Anthony Santella's punt and Nathan Bussey recovered on the MSU 15 yard line. With time in the half running out, the Illini settled for a 33 yard Dimke field goal to give the Illini their 6-3 halftime lead.
Unfortunately, the second half was a different story. On the first possession of the second half, Scheelhaase was intercepted by Johnny Adams, who returned it to the Illini 16 yard line. The Illini defense came to the rescue again, and the Spartans settled for a 34 yard field goal to tie the game.
Scheelhaase completed 15 of 27 passes for 141 yards on the day, but his three interceptions were damaging. He appeared to panic at times under intense Spartan pressure. Zook explained the second interception.
"He telegraphed it, and they did a good job of picking it off. They saw what we were trying to do and did a good job."
This was the beginning of a pattern that allowed MSU to maintain second half momentum. The defense held that time, but it eventually was on the field too long. Zook reminded that you can't give an opponent a short field all day and expect to win.
"That's right, you can't do that. We can't put our defense in those situations. We say to the defense you've got to hold them to a field goal. But if you're gonna do that, you have to be able to move the chains on the offensive side. They did a great job kicking in the third quarter. We couldn't get anything started in the third quarter."
MSU's offense got hot on their next possession, going 77 yards in four plays. The touchdown was on a 48 yard strike from Cousins to B.J. Cunningham. He was wide open over the middle as the Illini had a blitz called and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, getting playing time after returning from a stress fracture, appeared to miss his assignment.
Hawthorne had three tackles on the day while splitting time with Justin Green. He is getting his health back, but he missed a great deal of practice time and is still rusty. Zook hopes eventually to rotate those two and Travon Bellamy at the two cornerback spots.
"He's not there yet, but as we go along here he'll play and get adjusted and split time with Justin. It's good because it gives Justin time to stay fresh. What we'd really like to do is rotate all three to keep them fresh."
The Illinois offense finally got something going late in the third quarter. After a 6 yard completion from Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins and two Leshoure runs netted 15 yards, Scheelhaase found Jenkins over the middle for a big 39 yard gain. Unfortunately, the ball was stripped from Jenkins and then recovered by Darqueze Dennard at the MSU 17.
The Spartans moved quickly downfield, aided by a 20 yard pass to Cunningham and a later face mask penalty. Again the defense stiffened, forcing a Conroy 32 yard field goal to make it 16-6.
With Illinois unable to utilize intermediate passing routes, MSU continued to tighten its defense. And with the Illini determined to stop the run, Cousins found seams in the secondary for good gains passing. Another MSU drive ended at the one yard line, forcing another Conroy field goal.
The Illini began to move the ball on their next possession. However Scheelhaase was then intercepted by Trenton Robinson. After a 17 yard completion from Cousins to Cunningham, Larry Capers ran the final 15 yards to produce the final 26-6 score.
Scheelhaase was hurt six plays later, replaced by Miles Osei. Afterward Zook said Scheelhaase had the wind knocked out of him.
"I think that's all it was. I don't think there's anything major. We're all beat up a little bit. When you play a game like that, that's gonna happen."
Overall, the Illini can be proud of their defense, gaining confidence with every outing. But turnovers, untimely penalties and an inefficient passing offense that isn't spreading the field were their downfalls.
Illlinois held MSU to 294 net yards and only 93 rushing yards on the day. Cousins was 13 of 24 for 201 yards and one touchdown. Caper led the rushers with 37 yards in 7 carries. Cunningham led all receivers with 83 yards in just three receptions.
But the Illini offense could muster only 255 net yards of its own. Leshoure fought hard for 83 yards in 23 carries. He also had three receptions for ten more yards. Jarred Fayson had five catches for 45 yards, and Jenkins added 64 yards in four grabs. They had little help.
Defensively, Liuget was the leading UI tackler with 11 tackles, one for a loss. He also had two quarterback hurries as he makes a case for All-Big 10. Martez Wilson, Trulon Henry and Bussey each recorded six tackles. Two of Bussey's tackles were for negative yardage, and Wilson registered one tackle for loss. Akeem Spence had two TFL, while Michael Buchanan had his first sack of the year.
The Illini have fought through a tough three game stretch with a 1-2 record, but that is better than most predicted. They are now 3-3 on the year, with all three defeats at the hands of teams now ranked in the top 20 in the nation.
It may be difficult to maintain emotional intensity next week, but that will be necessary. Indiana invades Memorial Stadium Saturday on Homecoming.
"We're gonna have to go back and regroup for our Homecoming crowd," Zook states.