Illini Travel to East Lansing on Saturday

With the Juice era officially upon the Fighting Illini, Ron Zook's team makes the trip to East Lansing for a Saturday game. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn provides a preview of Illinois' first Big Ten road game, and Juice's first start on the road in an Illini uniform.

It's probably safe to assume that the Juice Era is officially upon us. The young phenom had an up-and-down starting debut against Iowa last week, showing flashes of brilliance along with plenty of inexperience. Juice still needs plenty of work on his touch and accuracy, but having a receiving corps that can catch the ball certainly cannot hurt, either. However, his performance in the fourth quarter showed that perhaps the future of Illinois Football is finally bright. In recent years, Spartan Stadium has been a House of Horrors for the Illini, where they have dropped their last four. Overall, the Spartans have won nine straight from our heroes and 10 of 11, including last year's 61-14 drubbing. It's high time to start scheduling these boys late in the year after they gave begun their annual collapse. Speaking of collapse, MSU executed one of colossal proportions a week ago, as they blew a 17-point halftime lead thanks to John L. Smith turning uncharacteristically conservative in the second half. While it's never enjoyable to see Notre Dame win, there is a bit of pleasure in seeing John L. go down in flames as well, as Illini fans still remember the slew of late hits his Louisville Cardinals leveled on the Illini and Kurt Kittner in 2001. Eventually justice will be served, but not this year.

When the Spartans have the ball
The offense revolves around QB Drew Stanton, who is among the nation's most electrifying players and a sure-fire first round pick in next April's NFL Draft. Stanton is the Big Ten's career leader in completion percentage (.653) and has thrown a TD pass in each of his last 16 outings. He's second in the Big Ten in total offense (259.2 yards per game) and fourth in both passing efficiency (145.0 rating) and passing yards (197.8 ypg). He's not just a threat with his arm, as he is the team's second leading rusher (246 yards) and is one of three active Spartans with over 1,000 career rushing yards. Those other two are sophomore speedster Javon Ringer, who leads the team with 432 yards (108.0 ypg), and bruising 260-pound junior Jehuu Caulcrick, who sent Sparty fans into a tizzy last week with 111 yards, including a 30-yard TD jaunt in the third quarter that seemingly spelled doom for the Fighting Irish. This three-headed monster is propels a rushing game that is good for 255.5 yards per game, which tops the Big Ten and is fifth nationally.

When Stanton wants to throw the ball, he looks skyward towards 6-foot-6 Matt Trannon, who moonlights as a power forward for Tom Izzo in winter months. Trannon leads the team with 21 catches and needs only 22 more to surpass Andre Rison as the school's all-time leader. He's shown quite an arm as well, as he has completed both of his pass attempts for TDs, including a 26-yarder to Javon Ringer last week. His partner is senior flanker Kerry Reed, whose 257 yards and four TDs pace the club. Reed is a late bloomer as 37 of his 49 career catches have come over the last nine games.

When the Illini have the ball
The leaders of the MSU defense early on have been the safeties. Sophomore Otis Wiley leads the team with 27 tackles as well as four passes broken up. His four tackles for loss rank second behind DT Clifton Ryan's 4 ½. Junior Nehemiah Warrick is second on the club with 25 stops and has broken up two passes himself. Neither safety, however, has picked off a pass thus far. Starting CB Demond Williams is the only member of the secondary to have an interception to his name. The unit as a whole has been a weakness as the Spartans allow 245.2 passing yards per game, which is 10th in the league and 103rd nationally.

The linebacking corps is headed by Kaleb Thornhill and his 17 tackles and 3 PBU. He led the team with 11 stops last week which is the top number for any Spartan defender in any game so far. Bandit Sirdarean Adams has one of four MSU picks and among the best names in college football (teammates Ogmdi Nwagbuo and Caulcrick are also in the team photo). David Herron, Jr. mans the WHIP LB spot and he has racked up 15 tackles, one pick and 1 ½ TFL to date. Their jobs are made easier thanks to DT Clifton Ryan who has 4 ½ TFL and 3.0 sacks, both of which pace the team. Rush end Ervin Baldwin (2.0 sacks) is the only other Spartan with multiple sacks on the season. Sophomore Justin Kershaw mans the other end and Nwagbuo partners with Ryan inside to round out the front seven.

Fun Facts
While John L. Smith tends to run a loose ship on the field, off the field 41 (including 18 in 2005) of his Spartans have garnered Academic All-Big Ten honors in his three years at the helm. This is the highest three-year total in school history.

This season the Spartans have sold 12,722 student season tickets, the highest total since 1991, and have exceeded 60,000 overall for the second straight year. They have ranked among the NCAA's top 20 in attendance in each of the last 50 years.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories