CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS - MEMORIAL STADIUM
LAST MEETING, MICHIGAN STATE 14 - ILLINOIS 10
SERIES: Michigan State has won last six meetings.
ALL TIME: Michigan State holds a 20-16-2 series edge. (EAST LANSING) - While everyone is celebrating Michigan State's surprisingly fast start under head coach John L. Smith, the Spartans themselves believe they have bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks.
Still, they realize that they aren't in a position to look past anyone. The one time they thought they had a victory in the bag and started celebrating early, they got bit by the Louisiana Tech bulldogs with less than :20 left in the game.
That remains the only blemish on what could be a 6-0 mark for the Spartans. They aren't about to let that happen in Champaign, IL tomorrow when they take on the Fighting Illinois squad that has underachieved and needs something to hold on to. "We've had chances to win some games early in the season and we didn't do it," said Illini coach Ron Turner, who clearly finds himself on the hot seat after a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001, sandwiched in between five losing seasons in seven years. "But the last two games, we've fallen behind 21-0 (Wisconsin) and 20-0 (Purdue) and when that happens, you don't have a (good) chance to win." While Turner is trying to rally the troops into playing hard and not giving up, with MSU, Michigan, and Minnesota on the horizon, it's tough to convince his young squad, especially after a 42-10 drilling by Purdue last week, that they can pull the upset in the next three weeks. "We came into this season with a lot of confidence, but I'm worried about everybody's confidence now," Turner said. "When you don't get rewarded for hard work, you see some of that confidence slip. You can't help it, when you put that much work into it." Defending the Illini Quarterback the Illini is Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer. Beutjer has done a decent job, completing 143-of-230 for 9 TDs against 7 picks but the Illini offense (rank 3rd in the Big Ten in passing) have been unable to sustain drives and get the ball in the end zone. Beutjer threw for over 400 yards in the team's loss to Wisconsin.
Coach Turner is wrestling with whether to hope Beutjer's petition for a sixth season is successful or preparing one of his two red shirt freshman for next season. With five losses in the books, it doesn't figure to be much longer before Turner pulls the plug on Beutjer and looks to the future - perhaps to try to save his.
The future of the rushing game is squarely in the hands of true freshman E. B. Halsey. Halsey, a Chicago native, became the first freshman in Illini history to rush for 100 in the season opener, running for 139 yards in a loss to UCLA. Despite the freshman's play, the Illini are last in rushing in the conference.
MSU will have to keep an eye on dangerous receiver Kevin Hayden. Hayden is Beutjer's favorite target and with good reason. The junior college transfer leads the Big Ten with 39 catches for 427 yards and 3 TDs.
Spartan Attack MSU's Jeff Smoker, the Big Ten co-offensive player of the week, aims to keep his hot play of late rolling. Smoker, the Big Ten's leading passer would love to get big play threat Agim Shabaj (4th in the conference in receptions with 31 catches for 404 yards and 3TDs) rolling again.
Shabaj caught just two balls in MSU's win over hapless Indiana, but his playmaking ability will be needed this week. Sophomore Matt Trannon had his best game of the season with six catches for 82 yards. Trannon could be a huge factor in this one.
MSU got a boost from the play of junior Jason Randall who has moved ahead of sophomore Eric Knott on the MSU depth chart. Knott is getting a dose of coach John L. Smith's tough love that worked so well on Big Ten defensive player of the week Greg Taplin. Hopefully, Knott responds as well as Taplin did.
MSU will need their rushing game to protect a potential lead late in the game. No back has stepped forward to be "the guy" in the Spartans backfield, but sophomore Jaren Hayes is the most likely candidate. Hayes continues to fend of challenges for the starting running back job from injury stricken Tyrell Dortch, junior Jason Teague and even freshman DeAndra Cobb.
Still Hayes is seventh in the conference with 442 yards on 94 carries and seems to merit a chance to be "the man" in the Spartans backfield.
MSU's kicking game continues to be the "x" factor that wins games for the team. Freshman Brandon Fields leads the conference with 1,682 yards, a 46.7 average. Junior Dave Rayner leads the conference in kicking, averaging 10.0 points per game with his foot but his four misses are cause for some concern.
PICK: Michigan State takes care of business on the road, but has to work for it.
Michigan State 27 - Illinois 17