WHERE: SPARTAN STADIUM, EAST LANSING, MI
WHEN: 1:00 PM EST.
LAST MEETING: MICHIGAN STATE 49- ILLINOIS 14
ALL TIME: MICHIGAN STATE LEADS 21-16-2 INCLUDING LAST SEVEN STRAIGHT
(EAST LANSING) - Times are tough and close to getting desperate for the Michigan State football team.
After getting blown out on the road against conference rival Iowa, the Spartans stand at 2-3 with games coming up against the elite teams of the conference including Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin in a virtual murder's row.
If the Spartans want to retain their already slim bowl hopes this Saturday's game against Illinois is a must win. Lose it, and the Spartans can go into a wholesale youth movement.
More importantly for coach John L. Smith is what the effect of a sub .500 season will do to his recruiting efforts. Michigan State had a pretty good recruiting year after posting a surprising 8-5 record off the back of former coach Bobby Williams last good group of seniors.
But falling to the bottom of the pack of a tough Big Ten will likely make many recruits look elsewhere.
While it may be a comfort to remember that the Spartans have won the last seven meetings against the Illini, this is a Spartans team that doesn't do much of anything well. The defense as a whole doesn't tackle well and they allow teams to play pitch and catch in the passing game, not a good combination.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL
The Illini aren't happy with their starting quarterback Jon Beutjer and that's a problem since Beutjer has been around longer than almost any collegiate player in the nation, playing a virtually unprecedented sixth season.
Beutjer was benched in favor of Chris Pazan in Illinois' loss to Wisconsin. Coach Ron Turner explained the decision. "I took some time to think about it, looked at what (Beutjer's) done and looked at some film," the Illinois coach said. "Jon has done a lot of good things until this point. He missed some throws Saturday we'd like for him to make, so I made a change trying to spark us."
Turner said he will stick with Beutjer, it's a decision that could have long lasting repercussion. The Illinois coach is on the hot seat following a 1-11 season last year and a 2-3 start this year. A win could cool off many of his pundits.
Illinois is considering moving tailback E.B. Halsey to wide receiver to add some spark to their tepid offense. The Illini have already lost two starting wideouts (Lonnie Hurst and Ade Adeyemo) to injury for the season.
In their absence, Beutjer turns to tight end Melvin Bryant as a security blanket. Bryant caught Illinois only touchdown pass in their 24-7 loss to Wisconsin.
Michigan State has struggled against the pass so Turner may elect to have Beujter throw 40 or more times in an upset bid.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL
While the Spartans coaching staff doesn't always make the right calls, they aren't stupid either. It's pretty clear that MSU wanted redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves to take over the offense this season but Reaves didn't make enough plays to beat out sophomore Drew Stanton. So despite their obvious disdain for the Farmington Hills Harrison standout, he continues to get the nod.
"He brings more of the complete package to the field,'' Smith said. "He brings a settling effect. Guys on our football team have confidence in him. They say, 'We're going to get it done with Drew in the game.' He has all those attributes. That's why he's the guy.''
Stanton clearly knows where the cards lie. "Stephen might have a stronger arm than me," Stanton commented, "but I feel like I can make any of the throws that are necessary."
"I don't know how you can say he's the most talented," Stanton continued, "because it's different being on the practice field from the game. Things move a lot faster. You can play all the games you want, like they recruited Stephen and didn't recruit me. They were stuck with me. I don't let that stuff bother me.''
A bigger problem than Stanton's passing has been the Spartans receivers, who don't seem to be able to catch the ball. Smith, in his weekly press conference joked he might even try an unorthodox approach to deal with his receivers.
"Like bring in a psychiatrist?'' Smith cracked. "Lay them on the couch, talk to them, 'Really, you do have good hands.' Hey, we're not opposed to trying anything.''
Sophomore Terry Love emerged last week with a nine catch, 103-yard performance when other receivers were dropping the football. Junior Matt Trannon is the team's leading receiver to date with just 19 catches.
The jovial Smith turned serious when asked about the play of his receiving corps.
"It will be corrected, or we will have other guys in there," Smith said. "If we can't catch the football, then we're in big trouble with what we do." Look for Love and junior Jerramy Scott to get more snaps and perhaps even the start in the three receiver set with Trannon. Tight end Eric Randall will likely get the start over senior Eric Knott.
It would help if Michigan State would stop playing games and insert breakout freshman Jehuu Caulcrick, who has pounded opposing defense with his brusing style of running. Caulcrick is the prototypical 'big back' that Smith prefers in his one-back offense, but learning to handle opposing blitzes is holding him back from taking over the position.
When teams are even, the home team usually gets a 3-point advantage. Look for Stanton to establish the pass and then hurt Illinois with his running ability. State is a little better than the Illini but this will be a game into the fourth quarter.
MICHIGAN STATE 24 - ILLINOIS 14