Five takeaways from Illini's 31-27 win over Michigan State

Illini Inquirer publisher Jermy Werner breaks down his five biggest takeaways from Saturday's 31-27 win over Michigan State

1. Illinois notched a program-building win.

A bowl was a good goal this season for Illinois football. But all along, I thought a win over one of the Big Ten's best teams could be just as important a goal. Despite Michigan State clearly experiencing a terrible season, Saturday's 31-27 win certainly qualifies for a statement victory for this Illinois football program.

The Spartans won the Big Ten last year. They'd won 36 games the past three seasons with two Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl appearance and two Cotton Bowl appearances.

Lovie Smith appeared headed toward the same fate as his two non-interim Illini head coach predecessors. Both Ron Zook and Tim Beckman slogged through lifeless 2-10 campaigns in their first seasons at Illinois. This 2016 season seemed to be going the way of 2005 and 2012, but Saturday's upset changes the narrative and gives the Illini a jolt.

The locker room receives a jolt.

"It brings sort of an edge, not cocky but an edge and a positivity in the locker room, a morale," Illini running back Kendrick Foster said. "Before it was sort of flat. Now, it's just like, 'Hey, we're good.' People just need to start believing in it, I think we're building a culture here where we're bringing the young guys along and they're finally buying in to the system."

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Said Smith: "There is no excitement like a winning locker room. Just genuine emotion, that's what the locker room. You want the guys to feel  that more often."

A win over Michigan State -- which has three straight top-20 recruiting classes and has turned into a nationally prominent program -- also jolts recruiting efforts much more than nondescript wins over Murray State and Rutgers. The celebratory post-game certainly provided a much-improved backdrop for official visitor Rhedi Short than the previous week's 40-17 homecoming loss did for then official visitors Nelson Mbanasor (who committed to Texas Tech last week) and Devodrick Johnson (who plans an announcement Sunday).

"It's a step in the right direction," redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins said. "Moving forward with recruits, we need wins like this against teams like the Michigan States and the rest of our schedule. Recruits are taking notice."

The win gives the Illini program, its players and its fans some life. It's also a reminder that though the schedule ahead is difficult -- at Wisconsin, home against Iowa and at Northwestern -- there is still plenty to play for.

"It's a springboard to our program," Foster said. "We needed this."

2. Garrick McGee can make something out of nothing.

Illinois on Saturday started a quarterback who received fourth-team reps during spring practice. It was without three of its top five receivers, including its top two options. The offensive line is one of the least physically imposing fives in the Big Ten.

But its offensive coordinator put together a heck of a game plan on Saturday -- at least for the final 33 minutes. Illinois went without a first down for the first 27 minutes of the game, but most of that was due to poor execution. Foster's 14-yard first-down run though with under three minutes left seemed to spark confidence in the Illini personnel, and McGee pushed the right buttons the rest of the way.

310 yards and 31 points with this personnel make it seem like McGee built a house with a toothbrush.

The Illini offensive coordinator rode the hot hand in the run game (Foster) and helped create running room with some creative zone-blocking and misdirection runs. His quarterback missed several throws, but McGee showed confidence in George Jr. on the game-winning drive, calling four consecutive passes which resulted in two pass interference penalties and two completions -- including the 16-yard touchdown to Sam Mays, a seldom-used sophomore who played the role of go-to target on Saturday.

McGee started the season trying to run a power-run offense with a team that lacks the personnel to do so. But he quickly adjusted to a more spread-heavy scheme that has given his team a chance, even as most of its top playmakers have gone down due to injury. Count me intrigued by what McGee can do with the personnel he actually wants.

"Garrick and our offensive staff, all of our coaching staff, they've been coaching their butts off all year," Smith said. "No one wants to hear that unless you won the football game. But it's tough for any OC to go down to his third quarterback, to have linemen out, to lose your No. 1 receiver. But nobody wants to hear that. They want the next guy to step up, and you find a way to get some production. That's what they were able to do."

3. The run defense is settling in.

One thing Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson told me a few weeks ago stuck with me. During his first season under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, Nickerson said, it took he and the Buccaneers defenders almost half the season to truly understand and play well in his Tampa-2 scheme. Scheme changes often cause players to overthink -- and any hesitation causes trouble when played at Big Ten speed. Once that defense and its responsibilities become second-nature, the defenders simply react.

The Illini run defense appears like it's finally settling in and comfortable. The Illini allowed 175 rushing yards Saturday but only allowed the Spartans to average 4.1 yards per carry and Michigan State's longest run was 20 yards. Also, 104 of those rushing yards came in the fourth quarter, when the Illini defense was worn down (they were on the field for 41:36 and 90 plays on Saturday). These strides are part of a positive trend that started in the second half against Michigan, continued into Minnesota (3.56 yards per rush).

While the Illini pass coverage remains a huge concern (Michigan State threw for 315 yards), the defense has taken huge strides in its run fits and limiting big run plays.

"Today is when we made that first step forward as a defense because we played our best game today, definitely," Watkins said. 

4. Young players continue to emerge and grow.

To help fix that terrible pass coverage, I've been calling for Watkins to play for a while. Illinois had tried four other players at the position -- Darius MoselyAhmari HayesFrank Sumpter and Chris James -- with similarly subpar results before finally turning to Watkins on Saturday. The 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt freshman is still pretty raw, but he has the length, speed and physicality the Illini seem to want and need in a cornerback. And he showed it in the spring, so it's a bit perplexing that the staff waited so long to put him in opposite Jaylen Dunlap, who is putting together a phenomenal stretch of games (7 PBUs the last two games and 2.5 TFLs vs. Michigan). Based on his Saturday performance, Watkins at least (four tackles) earned a few more reps in the future.

He's the latest young Illini to at least intrigue with some flashes when given opportunity. Growing pains from these players has hurt Illinois, but hopefully the experience pays huge dividends in the future. 

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Stanley Green (two forced fumbles) continues to look like he's going to be the rangy, hard-hitting safety at the back of the Illini defense for the next three-plus seasons. With each passing game, Tre Watson (career-high 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) looks more comfortable, confident and aggressive at weakside linebacker. Patrick Nelson (nine tackles) continues to provide a physical presence as an in-the-box strong safety (57 total tackles during six Big Ten games). Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson both earned their fourth starts of the season on Saturday -- and they've earned it over seniors.

On offense, George Jr. missed several open downfield throws that looked like they'd cost Illinois. But he showed the mental toughness to bounce back from those mistakes and make the big plays the Illini need from its quarterback to win. And Sam Mays (four catches, 39 yards) -- who McGee called "Baby Malik" last week -- did his best to fill injured Malik Turner's shoes as the No. 1 wideout.

The Illini have had to throw a lot of freshmen and sophomores into the fire this season. They're coming out stronger each week. With a weak senior class next season, Illinois needs its underclassmen to develop rapidly.

"We have a lot of players who haven't played an awful lot, but it's their time," Smith said. "There comes a moment in time when you have to step up. It's your time to step up to the plate. Injuries a lot of time will speed up that process, and these guys are."

5. Smoot is playing like a first-round pick.

With expectations so high entering the season, Dawuane Smoot's season statistics (43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks) may seem a bit disappointing on the surface. But the film has shown Smoot to be a dominant force most of the season.

The statistics give Smoot the credit for seven quarterback hurries, but he's been even more disruptive than that. While Smoot can be overaggressive in the run game at times, he also has blown up several plays and is much stronger and consistent against the run than teammate and fellow premier pass rusher Carroll Phillips.

On Saturday, Michigan State's right tackle rotation barely blocked Smoot, who finished with 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack and a quarterback hurry. He blew up several other plays, and may have had a case for the Illini's MVP of the game.  And just before I published this, Pro Football Focus proved why.

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Smoot may not top last year's sack total (8.0) -- though he has three sacks in the last four games -- but he's been just as good, if not slightly better. Smoot on Saturday moved into a tie for eighth place in Illinois history with 35.0 career tackles for loss. Don't take him for granted. You -- and the Illini -- will miss Smoot dearly next season.


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