KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
TV: Big Ten Network
SERIES: Michigan State leads 24-17-2 (last meeting, 2009, Michigan State 24-14)
RECORDS: Illinois 3-2, 1-1; Michigan State 6-0, 2-0
POLLS: Michigan State (13 AP, 11 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Michigan State 35-17
KEYS TO THE GAME:
Illinois' much-improved defense faces its biggest test of the season. Even when the Illini played high-profile offenses like Missouri and Ohio State, they faced relatively one-dimensional attacks. Michigan State, on the other hand, averages almost equal numbers on the ground and through the air. The Illini must find a way to shut down either QB Kirk Cousins or MSU's triumvirate of studly running backs. Conversely, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino needs to build on the confidence that QB Nathan Scheelhaase built last week at Penn State.
Michigan State and Illinois both are running the ball well and stopping the run, so the rushing statistic will tell much of the story. Michigan State must hit and rattle Illinois freshman QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who grew up some in a win over the Nittany Lions. Illinois has played well on defense, but the Spartans' offense is clicking.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS:
Illinois finally produced a balanced attack -- at least balanced for Illinois -- against a good team with its 282 rushing yards and 155 passing yards last week at Penn State. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't throw a ton of balls downfield, but he has improved his ability to go through his progressions and find open receivers. RB Mikel Leshoure is as powerful as Wisconsin's John Clay, but he boasts a bit more speed and agility. Illinois' line has improved steadily, led by weak-side tackle Jeff Allen. The junior is in his third year as a starter.
Illinois' flexible defense has jumped into the top three in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.0 ppg) and total defense (304.8 ypg). The Illini are strong up the middle with junior DT Corey Liuget, MLB Martez Wilson and safeties Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson. They figure only to get better as sophomore CB Terry Hawthorne, who made his debut last week, gets back into the swing of things coming off a stress fracture in his foot. DE Clay Nurse gets to the quarterback at least one per game.
Everything is working now for Michigan State. QB Kirk Cousins and his receivers have shrugged off early rust, and the offensive line and running game just continue to get stronger. The Spartans got touchdown runs from all three backs last week, and sophomore Edwin Baker is emerging as one of the Big Ten's best.
Michigan State has been successful for two straight weeks, against completely different styles. The Spartans handled Wisconsin's power, then contained Michigan's speed. Illinois brings a similar offense to Michigan's, with a running quarterback and a great running back in Mikel Leshoure. The Spartans' defensive line will need to continue to control the point of attack.
Illini: Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 217.6 ypg. Junior Mikel Leshoure has been the bell cow with nearly half of the carries (104) and more than half of the yards (597), but QB Nathan Scheelhaase (277 yards, 2 TDs) keeps teams honest. Junior RB Jason Ford serves as a solid backup (138 yards, 2 TDs) who occasionally plays in the same backfield with Leshoure. ... Illinois re-introduced junior RB Troy Pollard into the mix against Penn State. Pollard, who rushed for 92 yards in 2007 at Syracuse as a true freshman, posted eight carries for 55 yards at Penn State. Those were his biggest totals since the Syracuse game. ... It's not a mystery where redshirt freshman Scheelhaase wants to throw the ball. He has completed 58 of 98 passes during his five starts this year. A whopping 67 percent of those completions have gone to senior WR Jarred Fayson (20 for 161 yards) and junior WR A.J. Jenkins (19 for 272 and 3 TDs). ... Senior P Anthony Santella has ranked among the nation's top two punters all season. He heads into the Michigan State game second with a 47.9-yard average, but the bonus is that Illinois' punt coverage ranks fifth nationally with 42.0 net yards per punt.
Spartans: The Spartans' coordinators are getting all kinds of national love after wins over Wisconsin and Michigan. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who assumed head coaching duties with Mark Dantonio sidelined for two games in the wake of a heart attack, was named National Coordinator of the Week by Rivals.com last week. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi earned the honor this week, after his group stifled QB Denard Robinson and Michigan's high-powered offense. ... Dantonio is expected to add to his workload this week as he continues to recover from a Sept. 19 mild heart attack. Dantonio coached the Michigan game from the coaches' box after missing the previous two games. Dantonio wouldn't rule out being on the sideline for the Illinois game, but it doesn't appear likely. He is still healing after developing a blood clot in his leg. ... The Spartans' wins over Wisconsin and Michigan marked Michigan State's first consecutive wins over ranked teams since beating No. 20 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State in November 1974. ... Michigan State is 6-0 for just the seventh time in school history.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Mikel Leshoure -- This powerful junior has delivered 100-yard efforts in five of Illinois' last six games and ranks 11th nationally with 119.4 yards per game. He leads all Big Ten running backs in rushing, though Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson ranks ahead of him.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase -- The redshirt freshman earned his second Big Ten freshman of the week honor for his sparkling performance at Penn State. Scheelhaase hit a career-best 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards, 1 TD and no interceptions. He has grown in each of his five starts.
DT Corey Liuget -- With relatively little fanfare, this junior from Florida has been a rock in the heart of Illinois' defense. He shares the team lead in tackles for loss (five) and sacks (two), but his stats don't show how he and DT Akeem Spence clog up the middle.
LB Chris Norman -- The sophomore came up with a huge game against rival Michigan, staying in position and delivering some key tackles for the Spartans. He's a high-end athlete who seems to be reading things better with each week.
OG Joel Foreman -- The junior delivered the key blocks on touchdown runs of 61 and 41 yards against Michigan. A starter since he was a redshirt freshman, Foreman is setting himself up for postseason honors.
FS Trenton Robinson -- The junior was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after he had a key interception, a pass break-up and seven tackles against Michigan.
WR Keith Nichol -- He hasn't been involved much in the offense, but Nichol broke free for a 42-yard catch on a trick play, then completed a short pass out of the Wildcat against Michigan. Mostly, he's delivering crushing blocks downfield.
TE Zach Becker (foot, doubtful), S Steve Hull (undisclosed, questionable), S Supo Sanni (Achilles, out for the season).