Will 99th Homecoming Be One To Remember?

The Michigan State Spartans are Illinois' homecoming foe Saturday at 11:00am. The Spartans are riding high after conquering in-state rival Michigan in overtime and invade Memorial Stadium brimming with confidence despite a 2-3 record. Their strong passing attack and power running game poses a definite challenge for the Illini defense.

Illinois has its hands full trying to get back on track Saturday. As head coach Ron Zook says, Michigan State is a formidable opponent even though the Spartans have lost three games by 8 points or less.

"I think they were kind of struggling as well. Maybe the difference between them and what we are is that they could have won every one of their games. The game last week was an overtime game. The Notre Dame game came down to the last drive. They've been in some close ball games, but still, winning is winning and losing is losing."

The Spartans employ a power running game, a contrast with the spread teams the Illini have faced up to now.

"They're going to line up, and they're going to pound you. They're going to get in normal personnel, regular personnel, they're going to get into two tight end personnel, they're going to get into one tight end and three wide receiver personnel.

"They're going to use both of those quarterbacks. They're both pretty good. If you had to say, Kirk Cousins is maybe a little bit better thrower. If you look at his percentages and where he's at, he's a little bit better thrower. But Keith Nichol is a guy that can move around and make some things happen with his feet, although I think both are mobile and both can make things happen.

"They're going to use the running back by committee. Their offensive line is a bunch of tough guys, and they're going to come in and try to intimidate you. So we're going to have to tackle. We're going to have to get them on the ground and make things happen on defense. We have to play 60 minutes."

Senior quarterback Dere Hicks says that alternating quarterbacks presents unique problems.

"I think the two-quarterback system is gonna be a challenge. You can get used to one quarterback being out there, but another one might have a different game plan."

Defensive end Clay Nurse knows MSU will try to run over the Illini.

"Power football. They're very physical, and they're gonna run the ball down your throat. You can come out in a jumbo package, and they're still gonna run. They don't care. It's gonna be a pretty good challenge for us to stop the run, something we haven't been able to do in awhile now."

Illinois is still struggling to find itself. The defense could play better longer if the offense could score points and keep the defense off the field longer. Among the changes the Illini plan to make this week is the insertion of junior Eddie McGee into the starting lineup. How he performs will be a key component of the outcome.

"Eddie has to make sure to take care of the football," Zook states. "That's all I'm worried about, is that he takes care of the football and does the things he's been coached to do."

Quarterback coach Kurt Beathard says the game plan will not change significantly with McGee in the lineup.

"That's the beauty about it. There's not a lot of difference in terms of changing your game plan. Now, there might be some difference in that Juice might have gotten more reps at one thing that Eddie's not quite ready for, and Eddie might be ready for something that Juice doesn't get the reps on. But this shouldn't change our game plan."

The Illini offense has sputtered, held back by inaccurate passing, mistakes, penalties, turnovers, etc. Beathard spots for Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz in the press box, and he admits to frustration trying to carry out game strategies.

"Of course (it affects what you'd like to do). Overall, it's not just one person. It's something you can't put your finger on. I wish you could on every play. As for frustration, we're all frustrated. We're all trying to find the answer and be able to stamp it out right now. We're hoping the process comes quicker than later."

Already with a receding hairline, Beathard hasn't begun pulling his hair out yet.

"Yeah, but I've lost some weight."

Play calling adjustments can be carried out at a moment's notice, a good thing when the game plan is not being carried out properly.

"You only have time for frustration for about 10 seconds, and then you go on for the next play. We're prepared in all situations. If it's a sack, we have a play listed. We're accountable for every one of those. We have a plan for every one of those situations, and we go over those plans, down and distance, every day."

Nurse is sincere in his belief the Illini are a good team. But they must prove it on the field.

"We feel we're a top 25 team. We feel we have the talent of a top 25 team. A lot of times, when you look on paper at their talent and our talent, the difference is that they've done it and we haven't. We just have to go out there and play like a top 25 team.

"When you have a big win like Michigan State did against their rival, they're not gonna come in here thinking they're gonna lose to us. They're gonna come in here trying to get that W.

"Our goal this time is to prevent the fans from leaving in the third quarter. That was kind of disheartening. The fans were mad, but we've got to go out there and do our jobs. We did not do our jobs this past Saturday.

"It's a new season. We've got 8 games left. It's all or nothing now."

Center Eric Block believes the Illini will be prepared for a top effort.

"We'll be ready. We have to right the ship. This would be a great week to start that. The sooner the better obviously. We need to get on a roll right here. I think everybody's ready to put the past behind us."

If Illinois has a team worthy of post-season bowl consideration, it must get a W soon. As doubt has set in, so has confidence diminished. The Illini may not be able to dominate anyone right now, but if they play an inspired game and score frequently, they can win Saturday.

If so, it could be the boost the team needs to get its swagger back.

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