Illinois @ Michigan State: Preview

The Fighting Illini travel to Michigan State Saturday in another challenging Big Ten football game. The Illini hope to counter the embarrassing pounding they received from MSU last year, while the Spartans try to recoup from a last-minute loss to Notre Dame. Illinisports discusses Illini prospects in this article.

From the frying pan into the fire. That is the dilemma the Illinois football team faces as they travel to Michigan State to take on the talented but wounded Spartans Saturday. MSU is hurting from squandering a big lead in a gut-wrenching 40-37 loss last weekend to Notre Dame, while Illinois will try to bounce back from their loss to Iowa.

Michigan State pounded Illinois in Memorial Stadium last year in a game Illini players and fans remember all too well. It appeared to some the Spartans were trying to pour it on a defenseless foe, and payback for that embarrassment is a goal for some Illini. But MSU is in a position where it wishes to forget its Notre Dame collapse by taking its frustrations out on the Illini. The fact this is also Michigan State's homecoming will not make Illinois' task any easier.

Uncertainty seems to be a constant state of affairs in Spartan land under head coach John L. Smith as emotions have reached extremes of good and bad in Smith's tenure there. MSU can look unbeatable some weeks and vulnerable in others. If they come out fired up to play 60 strong minutes against Illinois, they have the ability to score at will. But if the emotional letdown from last Saturday lingers, the Illini may have a chance.

On paper, Illinois is a severe underdog. Led by talented quarterback/leader/future pro Drew Stanton, a run and pass genius, the Spartans have all the tools to be a great offense. They have a power back in 260 pound Jehuu Caulcrick and an extremely talented compliment in Javon Ringer, the fastest player on the team. And they have a bevy of excellent receivers and tight ends led by the multi-talented 6'-6" Matt Trannon, a probable high NFL draft pick.

The Illini defense continues to improve, but it will be a severe task to limit the Spartan's scoring opportunities. Defensive linemen Derek Walker, Chris Norwell, Josh Norwell, and Doug Pilcher all asserted themselves well against Iowa, proving they are learning to free themselves from legalized holding by offensive linemen. But Michigan State also does a great job of holding, so it will be another severe test for Illini defenders to see if they can counter these blocking techniques.

Even if the Illini slow the Spartan's runners, it is imperative they also contain the runs, both planned and extemporaneous, of Drew Stanton. Stanton is big, strong, and smart and is a threat to run on any play. If the Illini don't pay close attention to him, Drew will run all over the place. But if Illinois places too much emphasis on stopping his runs, Stanton will find open receivers consistently. Illinois will need to play a bend-but-don't-break defense to keep play in front of them. Hopefully, the more plays MSU needs to score, the greater chance they might make a mistake.

Illinois has no defense for Trannon. He is simply too tall, too fast and too good an athlete to be contained all the time. Fortunately, Michigan State goes to several receivers and limits Trannon's touches. The more they forget him, the better Illinois' chances will be. Trannon also has a powerful arm and threw a long touchdown pass last Saturday against Notre Dame.

Juice Williams will be Illinois' starting quarterback again, although Coach Zook expects Tim Brasic to play as well. Juice will have to improve his efficiency to keep the Illini offense moving towards paydirt and keep the defense off the field. The best way to keep MSU from scoring is hold the ball for long drives. The Illini will need to balance run and pass and spread the field to keep the Spartans guessing. Juice will be asked to perform beyond his level of maturity and knowledge of the offense in order to help the Illini retain possession and score frequently.

What Juice needs most of all is what everyone on the team needs...relaxed confidence. The Illini's only other road game so far this year resulted in a complete collapse at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have an excellent team, but the Illini let the travel and strange surroundings affect them adversely. This was especially true of the Illini's large contingent of young players, but even their veterans played tight and uncomfortable. The Fighting Illini will need to focus on learning from this mistake and steel themselves for the noise and pressure of an away game.

For Juice, this means acting like a veteran instead of a freshman, a difficult assignment even for someone as talented as him. Williams will need to take all the emotional energy of MSU's homecoming and transform it into personal strength and confidence. He will have to put more touch on his throws and not let his adrenalin and testosterone get the better of him. He will need to keep his cool no matter how loud the fans get, making sure his teammates hear the play calls and snap counts.

This is asking for a minor miracle, but anything is possible. Of course, Illini receivers will have to catch everything near to them no matter how hard the passes arrive. Illinois simply must take advantage of every opportunity it gets, no matter what it takes. And Illini offensive linemen will have to hold their own against some talented Spartan defensive linemen, including a couple of strong and fast junior college transfers. This will be an important test for Jim LaBonte, who must replace the injured Akim Millington at left tackle. If he can't protect his quarterback consistently, Juice will be running for his life.

Some assume the Michigan State defense is vulnerable, but there are still a number of outstanding athletes on that unit. If Juice plays like the freshman he is, or if the receivers continue to drop his passes, Illinois' resulting inefficiency will aid the Spartan cause and help their defense look like world-beaters. Illini coaches and fans hope Illinois can play consistently on offense to see if MSU vulnerabilities are real or imagined.

One of these days, the Fighting Illini will pull a major upset. Such a result at Michigan State will be extremely difficult but not impossible. The main thing this writer would like to see is for Illinois to play the Spartans tough throughout the game, win or lose, and not collapse emotionally one week after they gave their all against Iowa. This young team needs to think like winners to become winners, and part of that thought process is to give their best effort week after week and not let down for any reason. If they can do that, they will beat a quality team, either Michigan State or some similarly talented unit somewhere down the line.

Illini, relax and have fun out there. You are improving, so let's see some more improvement this week and future weeks. Keep at it, and you will be rewarded eventually for your efforts.

Go Illini!!!


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