Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. Spartan Nation

Preview & Pick: Michigan State at Illinois

Illinois aiming for first Big Ten home victory of the season while Michigan State shoots for its first Big Ten win of the season

Michigan State (2-6, 0-5 B1G) vs. Illinois (2-6, 1-4 B1G)

Time: 11 a.m.

TV: ESPNews -- Mike Couzens (play by play) and Dan Hawkins (analysis)

Series: The Spartans lead the alltime series 26-17-2, including a 13-9-1 record in games played in Champaign. Michigan State has won 12 of the last 13 meetings in the series. The last meeting in the series came in 2013 at Champaign, a 42-3 victory by Michigan State.

Vegas betting line: Michigan State (-7)

Last week: Illinois lost 40-17 at home to Minnesota. Michigan State lost 32-23 to No. 3 Michigan at home.

Numbers to know

0.9: Sacks per game by Michigan State, which ranks last in the Big Ten.

3: Interceptions thrown by the three Illinois quarterbacks this season, ranking fifth in FBS and tied for first in the Big Ten.

6: Illini freshmen to start on defense last week against Minnesota.

9.4: Tackles per game for Illini linebacker Hardy Nickerson, which ranks third in the Big Ten and 25th in the FBS.

25: First-time starters this season for Illinois, the most in the nation. That number incldes 11 freshmen (four true freshman and seven redshirt freshmen).

30.0: Points allowed per game this season by Michigan State, which ranks 12th among Big Ten teams.

227.8: Passing yards per game allowed by Michigan State, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten.

Spartans to watch

http://www.scout.com/player/152766-tyler-o-connor?s=169

http://www.scout.com/player/164245-damion-terry?s=169

Senior quarterback Tyler O'Connor lost his starting job during the BYU loss, but freshman Brian Lewerke -- who had assumed the No. 1 role -- suffered a broken leg last week. O'Connor and Damion Terry are listed as co-starters this week and both have been slowed by injuries: O'Connor with a foot injury and Terry with a hand injury. O'Connor hasn't been that bad this season, completing 60.1 of his passes for 8.23 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Terry, a junior, is 6-for-14 passing for 63 yards and an interception.

http://www.scout.com/player/173020-l-j-scott?s=169

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore running back (603 rushing yards, four touchdowns) is heating up, rushing for 267 yards on 48 carries (6.4 ypc) during the last two games. He is a load to handle between the tackles.

http://www.scout.com/player/163399-r-j-shelton?s=169

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior wideout leads the the team in receptions (37), receiving yards (598) and touchdown catches (four). He ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards (74.8 ypg).

http://www.scout.com/player/156705-brian-allen?s=169

The Hinsdale (Ill.) Central grad was a preseason All-Big Ten selection and can start at either guard or center.

http://www.scout.com/player/161720-malik-mcdowell?s=169

The likely top-10 selection in April's NFL Draft hasn't put up huge numbers this season (7.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 3 QBHs), but the 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman is a force in the trenches.

http://www.scout.com/player/182854-josh-king?s=169

The former four-star recruit and Darien (Ill.) native has cracked the rotation as a true freshman, totaling eight tackles and 1.0 sack.

Illini in the spotlight

With Malik Turner, Mike Dudek and Dominic Thieman injured, Illinois needs several unproven receivers to step up.

http://www.scout.com/player/169763-desmond-cain?s=169

After a 50-catch freshman campaign, Cain has had a disappointing sophomore season with just three catches for 44 yards. He missed four games earlier this season with what Lovie Smith called a knee injury. He also did not play against Minnesota.

http://www.scout.com/player/179155-sam-mays?s=169

The 6-foot-3 sophomore wideout hasn't made much of an impact this season (five catches, 71 yards). But he caught two passes for 39 yards against Minnesota and may have the highest ceiling among the healthy Illini wideouts.

"We're going to see Sam this weekend," Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "We like Sam. Sam can jump. Sam can run. He's a really smooth athlete. So he's up, for sure."

http://www.scout.com/player/167857-caleb-reams?s=169

The redshirt freshman tight end has been working at wide receiver recently due to the Illini's short numbers on the perimeter. Reams has struggled to get on the field at tight end due to his deficiencies as a blocker. But he is a skilled, athletic receiver who may earn opportunities on Saturday.

http://www.scout.com/player/196303-zarrian-holcombe?s=169

The freshman is a long, athletic weapon on the perimeter. He's struggled in his early playing time (no receptions yet). While McGee said "I'm hoping he develops into a really good tight end," Holcombe's need for strength makes him a bit of 'tweener right now.

"He's developing," McGee said. "We're trying to give him small packages that he can develop with. He's competitive. I've said this since we got here, he only plays football one way, and that's really hard. Now, he doesn't quite know how to get in and execute consistently right now, but I think he's another one that is going to be a major part of our process because he's a passionate kid who plays really hard on the field. We're going to hear a lot of him in the future."

Five quick questions with Spartan Nation

Spartan Nation publisher Hondo Carpenter answers five quick questions about Michigan State prior to Saturday's kickoff at Illinois.

1. Michigan State has been a beacon of hope for programs like Illinois that the right coach and patience can result in a rise to the top tier of the Big Ten. But this 2016 obviously has been a disaster. What do you see as the main reasons for their struggles?

Mark Dantonio built this program on chemistry.  As they sustained success the bigger nam and higher profile talent came to East Lansing, some of those recruits impacted that chemistry.  This is NOT a long term problem, but chemistry issues mixed with some coaching mistakes and stubbornness and you have the perfect storm that has become the 2016 season.

2. Dantonio seemed to overachieve with recruiting classes full of tough three stars who fit what he wanted. But since Sparty's rise, he has recruited three consecutive top-20 national recruiting classes. Why hasn't that translated to the field?

Some people forget that when you get away from the two and three star guys with something to prove and you bring in the five star four stars that are equipped with a sense of self entitlement that brings the chemistry issue mentioned above.  Not all, or even close to most four and five stars are self-entitled, but those that are, are deadly program killers

3. MSU has had a great string of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook. But the position has been in flux all season.  What's the current situation there and how has it impacted the offense?

QB hasn’t been an issue this year.  Offensive and defensive line has hurt the Spartans and terrible play calling at critical moments.  MSU is loaded with QB talent with more in the pipeline.  The QB plays hasn’t been world class, but far from the reason why the Spartans are losing.

4. Despite having a likely top-10 pick in Malik McDowell, Michigan State's defense has struggled greatly. Why?

One player can’t make a defense.  However one can impact it.  Good or bad.  If you go back and look at a game earlier this year in which Malik McDowell was suspended for the first half, they played better.  MSU has suffered the loss of six defensive linemen from last year.  That is a killer.

5. How has Jim Harbaugh's presence at Michigan impacted Dantonio and Michigan State? 

Not at all.  UM always got the attention.  Harbaugh doesn’t cheat and while some think he can be annoying, Dantonio respects him

Also, what is your prediction for Saturday's game?

MSU has superior talent.  Lovie Smith will do great at Illinois.  The Illini do not have the horses, but hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.  Illinois will fight.  MSU should be able to just be the more talented team and win.

Keys to the game

1. Sack the Spartans: The Michigan State quarterbacks are hobbled and the offensive line (allowing 2.3 sacks per game). is struggling. The talented but so-far underachieving Illini front four must create havoc in the backfield for Illinois to have a chance.

2. Win the takeaway battle: This could be a key every week, but this is a must for Illinois every week given its deficiencies on offense and its propensity to give up big plays on defense. While the Illini have 14 takeaways this season, three of those came against Murray State and five came against Rutgers. So that comes out to just one takeaway per game over the other six. Lovie Smith prides himself on takeaways. His defense must create more of them.

3. Special teams success: Illinois ranks 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (19.6 ypr) and last in punt returns (4.1 ypr). It also ranks 11th in kickoff coverage and 10th in net punting. Illinois has blocked just one kick/punt. Simply, the Ilini are losing the third phase. It's time for a big play from Bob Ligashesky's crew.

Prediction

Which team still has fire in its belly? Though expectations were a bit higher in Champaign, no one's that surprised that Illinois - barring a huge shocker -- is not going to a bowl game this season. But Michigan State was ranked in the top-10 just six weeks ago and now may finish below Indiana and Maryland in the Big Ten standings.

Sparty has been the Big Ten's biggest disappointment this season. The rise of Michigan and internal chemistry issues seem to have taken a toll on Mark Dantonio's program, which appears at a crossroads. But the Spartans still have a chance to end the season on a high note, starting Saturday. MSU still has Illinois, Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State. Given how it performed against Michigan (totaling more yards against the Wolverines than of their previous opponents), Michigan State will be favored in its next two games and at least has a chance in the last two.

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Illinois, meanwhile, is in the midst of a lost season. They missed two of their biggest opportunities in winnable games (home losses to Purdue and Minnesota) by shooting themselves in the foot too many times. The coaching staff increasingly is trotting out its youngest players to build for the future -- which has its highs and lows. The prospect of a possible Wes Lunt return could give the Illini a boost, but how big? This offense simply lacks playmakers -- especially with Malik Turner and Ke'Shawn Vaughn still possibly dinged up -- and the defense still lacks the strength and discipline to win Big Ten games.

Michigan State and Illinois both have been bad teams this season. But give the edge to the more talented bad team.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 17


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