For 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, it was hard to tell which team was undefeated and ranked 13th in the Associated Press poll.
Actually, considering how well Illinois' defense played in the first half at Michigan State, the Illini looked more like the nationally ranked outfit. Then turnovers and busted assignments -- relics of recent Illini contingents -- reared their ugly heads and Illinois fell 26-6 at Spartan Stadium.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had played virtually flawlessly in the win the week before at Penn State, tossed two of his three interceptions after intermission. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins lost a fumble that might not have been one, judging by the replays. Michigan State capitalized by scoring on all five of its second-half possessions.
The Spartans took their first lead on Kirk Cousins' 48-yard touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham with 8:26 left in the third quarter. Cunningham was all alone behind the Illini defense, which wasn't exactly the plan. According to the Chicago Tribune, middle linebacker Martez Wilson and safety Tavon Wilson (no relation) confused the call.
"Some of our self-destruction stuff started happening," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said in the Tribune.
That stuff hadn't really happened since the season-opening loss to Missouri, which should be considered a good sign considering Illinois ranked last among Big Ten teams in all relevant categories last year. That wasn't too consoling to Illinois' defense on Saturday, though, after allowing a season-high 26 points.
"It's a depressing feeling," Martez Wilson told the Champaign News-Gazette. "I don't like this feeling, so we're going to have to do something about it."
This should brighten Illinois' day: As the team hits the midpoint of the regular-season schedule, it has three terrific teams in the rearview mirror (Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State) and a relatively benign second-half slate.
Illinois kicks it off with Saturday's homecoming date against Indiana, which barely defeated Arkansas State at home this week. If the Illini can win four of six, they'll ensure their third bowl bid in the past 11 seasons.
"We think that we can compete with anybody else that's left on our schedule," coach Ron Zook told the News-Gazette. "Still, we're going to have to go do it."
--Junior running back Mikel Leshoure entered Saturday's game at Michigan State as the nation's No. 11 rusher. Leshoure found tough sledding against a veteran Spartans unit that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Leshoure rushed 23 times for a game-high 83 yards, but he never found room for his standard once-per-game burst. Leshoure's longest run was 12 yards. He has 680 yards in six games and hasn't reached the end zone since the Sept. 18 win over Northern Illinois.
--Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase didn't build on his turnover-free performance at Penn State. Scheelhaase, who had thrown just one interception in Illinois' previous four games, tossed three picks at Michigan State. On at least two of the miscues, Scheelhaase locked on his receiver and gave the Spartans' secondary time to race over and make the play. Scheelhaase completed 15 of his career-high 27 attempts for 141 yards.
--With Saturday's 26-6 loss at Michigan State, the Illini have lost their last nine games against Associated Press Top 25 teams. They failed to score a touchdown for just the third time since the start of the 2007 season. The last time was the 30-0 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 26, 2009.
GAME BALL GOES TO: DT Corey Liuget -- The junior from Florida was a beast from the get-go. He racked up a team-high and career-high 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and posted two quarterback hurries. As an indication of his dominance, Liuget posted six solo stops; only one other teammate (DE Michael Buchanan) managed as many as three.
KEEP AN EYE ON: DT Akeem Spence -- The redshirt freshman from Florida has been teaming with DT Corey Liuget all year and getting better each week. Spence contributed three tackles, including one when he flat-backed RB Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard loss. He also had a quarterback hurry against Michigan State.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think you've got to say to the whole offense, 'Hey, we've gotten better all year long. We've improved. We've gotten tougher, but we didn't play good enough today.'" -- Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, in the Champaign News-Gazette, after the Illini posted just 255 total yards with four turnovers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Defensive tackles Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence controlled the middle of the line against a high-octane Michigan State rushing attack. The Spartans came in averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game, but they managed just 93 yards in 31 carries.
RB Mikel Leshoure battled for 83 yards in 23 carries against a Michigan State defense geared up to stop the run.
OLB Nate Bussey again was around the ball at the right time. Last week, he recovered a fumble and returned a Penn State interception for a touchdown. This week, he recovered a Michigan State fumbled punt to set up Illinois' field goal just before halftime.
STILL NEEDS WORK: QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw three interceptions in 27 attempts. He had thrown just one pick in Illinois' previous four games, a stretch of 75 attempts.
WR Eddie McGee committed a late hit for no apparent reason to force the Illini into even worse field position in the first half.
After keeping Penn State away from Scheelhaase, Illinois' offensive line surrendered four sacks against Michigan State.
--Jack Ramsey didn't return kicks or punts after fumbling three balls against Penn State. Jarred Fayson took over the punt returns, while Troy Pollard and Darius Millines handled the kicks.
--Jack Cornell started at strong-side guard for the third week in a row. It appeared sophomore Hugh Thornton started at the other guard, but the official stats list senior Randall Hunt as the starter.
--Starting CB Terry Hawthorne (stress fracture in right foot) didn't make his first 2010 start Saturday, but he moved closer to the starting lineup as he played extensively and posted three tackles. One was a terrific open-field tackle of a burly tight end for no gain.
--Starting safety Supo Sanni (ruptured right Achilles tendon) is out for the year.
An Inside Look at the Illini
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