Illinois begins the Big 10 portion of its schedule with a home game against Michigan State this Saturday. As will be true most every game from now on, the Illini are underdogs and will need to play an outstanding game to win.
It is this writer's task to speculate on what it will take to win each Saturday, but we must do basically the same things each week. We must prepare properly during the week, build our emotional and mental energy so it maximizes at game time, win the turnover battle, wrap up all tackles, harrass the quarterback into hurried throws, keep the defense off the field by executing long marches on offense and scoring frequently, and never quit or lose confidence until the final gun.
These things are important for all teams, but they are easier said than done in the face of opponents who have the same goals. In the Big 10, all teams have talent, and all teams are inspired to win. To pull out victories against top opponents, the Illini must give their best effort at all times and hope we can disguise our weaknesses and take advantage of our best talent. A little good luck would do wonders as well.
Michigan State is bouncing into Memorial Stadium on a high after upsetting Notre Dame at South Bend in a thrilling, emotionally draining overtime game last weekend. Their 3-0 nonconference record conjures up visions of a major bowl game among MSU fans and players. They will be coming to C-U with a ton of confidence.
The Spartans always have quality athletes, and this year is no exception. John L. Smith has numerous playmakers to choose from on offense, and they all get chances to show their wares in Smith's wide open spread offense. But by far the key for MSU is their quarterback Drew Stanton. He is an excellent passer, a dangerous runner, and an inspirational leader. The Spartan players seem to rise up to a new level when Stanton is at the helm.
Controlling Stanton will be the main key to the game, but it is a difficult assignment. Barring injury, Stanton is a threat to run or pass on each play, and he must be accounted for at all times. Illini coaches are recruiting quarterbacks like Stanton because of the multiple threat they pose to any defense. We will likely assign someone like middle linebacker Remond Willis to account for him at all times, but MSU can counter that defense by involving players who receive less attention than Stanton. Coach Zook will get to pick his poison, but Stanton will likely be his preference for special attention.
The Spartans are long known for their strong running attack, and this year is no exception. And their wide receivers are talented. But what likely will make MSU especially difficult to defend is an experienced offensive line. They are not as big as the California line the Illini endured last week, but they open holes and protect Stanton well.
Illinois has not yet recovered a fumble this season, and they have only one interception to its credit so far. Besides eliminating our own turnovers, we simply must cause and recover a few fumbles and interceptions to have a chance against ranked teams like MSU. We did finally see a team drop the ball a couple of times last week, but we are still snake-bit when it comes to getting turnovers. We are extremely overdue for some good fortune on turnovers dating back the last three years. If there was ever a time for some statistical balancing, Saturday would be an ideal time for it.
Defensively, some Illini fans take heart in the fact that MSU gave up 600 yards of total offense against Notre Dame last week, but that statistic might be misleading. ND has an experienced quarterback, a strong offensive line and a top runner and receiver. In addition, they got much of their yardage when MSU became more conservative with a big lead.
In actuality, Michigan State always has big strong athletes on defense. They seem capable of attracting dominant defensive linemen, the kind Illinois has had trouble recruiting for many years. And their linebackers and defensive backs are no slouches either. Illinois will need to remain diverse in their offensive game plan and attack aggressively on each play in order to maximize their yardage and sustain drives. And they will need to use a power running game to keep Michigan State off balance and open some passing lanes. This is the big, bad Big 10, and MSU is doing its share to help the conference maintain that reputation.
Illinois has endured some special teams breakdowns so far, and even its superstar Steve Weatherford has had mixed results in his punting. We will need to play MUCH better on special teams to stay up with MSU. After all, their punter last year averaged more yardage on punts than Weatherford, who was exceptional. And their field goal kicker has been successful from beyond 50 yards in the past. It may be difficult to find weaknesses in the MSU special teams.
Spartan players will be warned to take Illinois seriously, but that may be difficult for them as we are their "sandwich" game between Notre Dame and intrastate rival Michigan. It is human nature to relax against an unranked opponent right after a big victory and right before another gargantuan struggle against national powerhouse Michigan. So Michigan State is ripe for an upset.
Illinois has lost 12 straight Big 10 openers, and they have lost their last 8 in a row to MSU. Thus, most will assume the Illini have no chance Saturday. However, if there was ever a time when the intangibles favor Illinois, it is this week. We are overdue, and MSU is vulnerable emotionally. Can you envision an upset? If we play well, anything is possible.
Coach Zook and his staff and players are making progress, but more improvement is needed. If we see improvement this week, we will like the results, win or lose. But a win definitely is possible if we play a great game.
Let's see everyone at Memorial Stadium this Saturday to provide our troops with the emotional lift to accomplish this goal!
What must Illinois do to defeat Michigan State?
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