Five Questions: Illinois

Illini Playbook publisher Fletcher Page takes some time to break down this weekend's MSU game -- what is Illinois' strength offensively and what can MSU expect to see after a long break with the Illini?

Mike Wilson: 1. The Big Ten hasn't been kind to Illinois of late and the first few games of this conference slate are brutal with MSU following up Nebraska and Wisconsin. How tough has that draw been for the Illini in the early going after playing pretty well out of conference?

Fletcher Page: It was a tough draw because Nebraska's and Wisconsin's greatest strength played right into Illinois' weakest deficiency – stopping the run. Counting Washington as well, the Illini have given up nearly 900 yards on the ground in their three losses this season.

In Year Two of Tim Beckman's rebuilding effort, opening conference play against teams with the talent, foundation and support that Nebraska, Wisconsin and now Michigan State has doesn't make it easy.

Wilson: 2. There is a feel of Indiana when you look at Illinois in their offense being somewhat up-tempo and gaining a lot of yards. What has been the key to the offense in the early going and what do you think they look to do against MSU's defense?

Page: First-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has played to this group's strength – that there is no real strength. He keeps the offense changing on every play, using an experienced wide receiver corps, a versatile group of tight ends, running backs who can catch and occasionally inserting a run-first freshman quarterback to give defense's plenty of looks to prepare for. There isn't one dominant skill position group on the roster, so Cubit gets creative and includes a number of players. You never know what formation awaits or who is next in line to get the football.

An extension of Cubit on the field, fifth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is in complete control of the organized chaos.

Wilson: 3. On the other side, Illinois has struggled to get sacks this season and MSU allows very few. How important will it be for Illinois to get pressure on Connor Cook and who are the key members of the front seven?

Page: You're right -- quarterbacks have been treated kindly by the Illinois defense. The unit has only five team sacks, the lowest total in college football. The key members of the front seven are linebackers Jonathan Brown, Mason Monheim, Houston Bates and defensive end Tim Kynard. If pressure is to be applied, it will have to come from that group.

More important, tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe, as well as youngsters Teko Powell and Jarrod Clements have to maintain gap responsibilities against the run and do their best to create pressure on Cook. As noted above, the defensive line has struggled mightily against more physical and experienced offensive linemen encountered in the Big Ten thus far.

Wilson: 4. It has been a while since MSU and Illinois met, but Nathan Scheelhaase was still around then. What's the dynamic been like with him and the freshman Aaron Bailey this season?

Page: Scheelhaase has enjoyed a resurgent senior season thanks to Cubit and a run of good health. He's completing over 65 percent of his passes and averages over 250 passing yards per game. He has 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and directed 26 plays that gained 20 yards or more. He's not running as much as he did in his first few years under center, a call made by Cubit to help protect his starter.

Bailey, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound freshman, mixes in here and there and has increasingly gotten more reps as the season has progressed. He doesn't direct entire series and is most likely to enter the game in short-distance situations. He's more of a runner at this point, and he's successful at it. I like to tweet 'Aaron Be Converting' when he leaves the sideline because 76 percent of his carries have resulted in first downs or scores. He has 10 first downs and three touchdowns on 17 carries.

He can pass, too. He has great arm strength, but isn't ready to read defenses or guide an entire offense yet. He threw his first career touchdown last week against the Badgers after faking the run and stopping short of the LOS to do damage through the air. That's a work in progress and will probably happen more frequently as he grows more comfortable.

Wilson: 5. What is your prediction for this game and what are the keys to the game?

Page: I've got the Spartans winning 31-21. Michigan State doesn't need to mess around too much here. From the sounds of it, running the football is the Spartans thing. The experienced o-line doesn't bode well for Illinois.

If the Illini are to pull the upset and win their first conference game in 17 tries, they have to start fast. Nebraska and Wisconsin outscored them by a combined 35-0 in the first quarter. The defense needs a few breaks, force a turnover or two and figure out a way to get off the field with the Spartans kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. The offense has to cash in on big play chances and score 7s in the red zone instead of kicking 3s. Sounds simple, right? We'll see what happens.

Spartan Nation Top Stories