Michigan State @ Illinois: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday when the Big Ten Conference Season opens up as the Illini welcome the Michigan State Spartans to Memorial Stadium. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn breaks down Michigan State Spartans in this game preview.

There are two reasons I am glad Michigan State beat Notre Dame last weekend. One, I despise Notre Dame football. Two, considering the Illini are the cream filling in a Notre Dame-Michigan sandwich, the Spartans may be primed to overlook them and come into Champaign thinking the game is already won. Any Spartan fan knows all too well that consistency has never been a strong suit and their tendency to play to the perceived level of their competition has been a bane to the program for some time. Last year, for example, the Spartans toasted undefeated Wisconsin 49-14 but proceeded to lose their final two to bottom-feeding Penn State and defensively challenged Hawaii. Four years ago, after a thrilling 26-24 win over Michigan, they decided to go and lose their next three, one of which was to lowly Indiana. So, there is precedent on the Illini's side, but keep in mind the Illini also have not defeated MSU since 1992. One thing that is hard to dispute is that MSU may have the best offense we'll see all year. But if we can combine the defense we saw in the first three quarters last week with a Michigan State team ripe for a letdown, we could be in for an exciting afternoon in Memorial Stadium.

Head Coach
You can call John L. Smith a lot of things, but 'loser' is not one of them. He ranks 12th among active Division I coaches with 123 career wins, 41 of which came in his five seasons at Louisville. He took the Cardinals to bowl games in each of his five years there and made a big splash in his 2003 MSU debut, taking the Spartans to the Alamo Bowl and winning the Dave McClain Coach of the Year award. Smith's care-free attitude has led him to run with the bulls in Pamplona, scale Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and paraglide off the Matterhorn in Switzerland. It has also led to teams that, while quite successful, have reputations for being undisciplined. Early on in 2005, the Spartans have the second most penalties in the Big Ten, and going back to the 2000 season, his teams have averaged 113 penalties a year. Most Illini fans remember the cheap shots repeatedly taken at Kurt Kittner in the 2001 Louisville game and still fondly remember Tony Pashos making sure it didn't happen again.

Offensive Preview
This is the Drew Stanton show, and it's time he gets a little credit. Yes, he's not Matt Leinart, but after that there aren't many better. Vince Young? Not many QBs are more dangerous afoot, but I'm sorry, he doesn't impress me as a passer. At all. Stanton is the total package, and if he's on, the Spartans are near impossible to stop. He's been known to be a little reckless (see the 2003 Alamo Bowl when he tore up his knee covering a punt) and has been too eager to run in the past. A shoulder injury he suffered vs. Michigan late last year curbed his enthusiasm a tad, and he has blossomed as a passer ever since. Through three games he's completing 72.0% of his passes and averages 308.3 passing yards per game. Last week vs. Notre Dame, he torched the Irish secondary for 327 passing yards and led MSU to 488 yards of offense in the 44-41 victory. Senior WR Matt Trannon recorded his first career 100-yard receiving game and crossed the goal line twice. One-time Illini recruiting priority Terry Love caught three for 69 yards and on the season averages 77.7 yards per game, which stands third in the Big Ten. Fellow WRs Kyle Brown and Jerramy Scott lead the team with 15 and 13 receptions respectively, giving Stanton four quality targets in Smith's spread offense.

The Spartans have averaged 553.3 yards per game thus far, and the passing game is not the only facet that scares opposing defenses. At 319.7 passing yards per game, they average nearly 50 yards more per game than runner-up Northwestern, but their running game ranks third in the league averaging 237.7 yards a game. With the emergence of freshman speedster Javon Ringer and the reinstatement of Jason Teague prior to last week, the Spartans now have four legitimate rushing threats. While Stanton has stayed more in the pocket thus far, he still has run for 111 yards after netting 687 a year ago. Jehuu Caulcrick leads the way 82.7 yards per game and combined with Teague and Ringer, the troika averages 6.3 yards per carry. Teague, who was suspended for the Hawaii game for what Smith dubbed a 'father-son' spat, rebounded from his week of inactivity and rumbled for 72 yards against the Irish including the 19-yard game-winning TD.

Defensive Preview
This is not a Spartan strength, although they can take plenty of satisfaction from the fact they limited Notre Dame to only 107 rushing yards in 38 attempts while also limiting them to only a field goal in the overtime period. On the other hand, they allowed 487 passing yards and ceded a 21-point second half lead. For the season, they rank last in the Big Ten in pass defense (341.3 yards per game) and 10th in total defense (422.7 yards per game). The Spartans have also collected eight sacks on the young season, but have only forced four turnovers.

Senior safety Eric Smith is the rock of the unit and he leads team with 25 tackles through three weeks and has one of the teams' three interceptions. Sophomore LB Kaleb Thornhill is second with 22 tackles, and if the surname sounds familiar, it should. His father Charlie played for the Spartans back-to-back Big Ten championship teams in 1965-66 and brother Josh was a four-year starter at LB from 1998-2001. He's also a cousin of current Illini LB Anthony Thornhill. David Herron Jr. and Sir Derean Adams round out the LB corps. Herron's two sacks lead the team, while Adams has collected a sack and a pick while also having as cool a first name as you can find. Nose tackle Domata Peko is the designated run-stuffer who forced a key fumble in the red zone last week and is another in a long line of Samoans to have some football success in America.

Final Analysis
This game will come down to one thing: can the Illini defense stop Stanton and his band of merry men? After all, they surrender a league-worst 6.5 yards per play while the MSU offense averages a league-best 7.6. On second thought make that two things: can the State defense stop the Illini? For three quarters last week, the Illini kept a pretty potent Cal offense in check. If that unit shows up, the Illini have a shot because Michigan State will undoubtedly still be hungover from last week's OT win and may have one eye on next week's game with the hated Michigan Wolverines and the other on the trip to Columbus in two weeks. The Illini should be able to move the ball without much resistance, but Brasic's numerous underthrows last week needs to be addressed. Plus, it would be nice if the punt return team could tackle someone. The Spartans have the edge in overall talent, but you can never be certain which Spartan team will show up. If State keeps their focus, the Illini will have a big struggle on their hands, but the guess here is that while MSU will suffer a letdown, they still eke out a close one 38-35.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Despite the loss to Cal, I was very pleased with the effort. Cal's talent (and some poor tackling) eventually took over, but I love the fight we showed. Considering all the youth that is playing regularly, the future is finally bright.
  • We've seen a glimpse of Rashard Mendenhall's considerable talents. This week we should see what Derrick McPhearson brings to the table. If these two even come close to living up to their billing, the offense will be in exciting hands, especially with Juice on the way.
  • I still think Pierre Thomas needs more carries. He's too good to get only 14 offensive touches a game.
  • I caught some of the USC-Arkansas game on Saturday. Wow. I've never seen a team make it look THAT easy. I don't want to hear any Domers spewing nonsense that they can beat 'SC. They can't. Deal with it.
  • Lou Holtz is absolutely brutal as a studio analyst. Brutal. I can't stress that enough. That constant smirk is annoying and we all know that down-home charm is all an act.

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