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.
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.
It's no longer a secret how Purdue is going to generate its offense.
Opponents, though, haven't developed a solution to slow down the Boilermakers' rushing attack.
That was the case Saturday as Purdue gained at least 200 rushing yards for a fifth straight game during the 28-17 victory over Minnesota at Ross-Ade Stadium.
After dealing with numerous injuries, the Boilermakers are 4-2 at the halfway point. They've resurrected their season after the surprising loss to Toledo three weeks ago. Purdue is 2-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2004.
"More people are stepping up every practice and every game," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "As we keep going, everybody is contributing."
Led by Dan Dierking's career day of 126 yards, Purdue collected 230 rushing yards against the Big Ten Conference's worst rushing defense. It's the first time since 1973 that the program has produced five consecutive 200-yard rushing games.
"It's a mind-set now," left tackle Dennis Kelly said. "People expect us to run the ball, and they might stack the box and play a different scheme.
"We've worked hard to develop a way to win. If that calls for us to run for 200 yards, that's what we have to do. The offensive line has made that a benchmark every game."
Making his second career start, quarterback Rob Henry accounted for four touchdowns, including a 20-yard pass to Antavian Edison to push Purdue's lead to 21-0 with 8:42 left in the third quarter.
Henry had touchdown runs of 4, 1 and 3 yards, and the Boilermakers' defense played another solid all-around game in holding Minnesota's rushing attack to a season-low 65 yards.
--Maybe it's a sign those bad breaks are turning in Purdue's favor.
After enduring a season's worth of injuries in seven weeks, the Boilermakers have been searching for some good fortune. Minnesota linebacker Gary Tinsley provided it Saturday as Purdue won its second straight game and improved to 2-0 in Big Ten play with a 28-17 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium.
With the Boilermakers leading 14-0, the second play of the third quarter changed the fortunes of both teams.
Tinsley intercepted quarterback Rob Henry's screen pass near midfield. Racing down the sideline, the junior appeared headed for the end zone.
However, Tinsley lost control and the ball hit the orange pylon. By rule, the pylon is part of the end zone. The result was a touchback and the Boilermakers retained possession. Purdue capitalized on the mistake, marching 80 yards in 13 plays to increase the lead to 21-0 on Henry's 20-yard touchdown pass to Edison.
Henry was credited with a forced fumble but said he didn't knock the ball out of Tinsley's hands.
"I'm not going to say I knocked it out," said Henry, a former high school safety. "I tried to make a play but he stuck it out. I think he was going to dive and the ball came loose."
The Boilermakers have been hit by bad luck all season.
Injuries to QB Robert Marve, WR Keith Smith and RB Ralph Bolden have hampered Purdue. That doesn't include WR Justin Siller, who has missed the last two games with a foot injury.
"That was some good fortune, and if you've been following us the last couple of years, we're still way behind in regards to good fortune," coach Danny Hope said.
--During Purdue's open week, the need for physical play was re-emphasized.
Since losing to Toledo on Sept. 25, the Boilermakers have become a more physical team. It was evident at Northwestern and again Saturday as Purdue handled Minnesota.
"We've taken a lot of steps in that area," said defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who had three tackles and one tackle for loss. "We've been more physical across the defensive line the last couple of weeks. "We emphasized that in the bye week and we're getting great carryover to the games."
The improved physical play has helped the Boilermakers defend the run, a weakness in previous seasons.
In last week's victory, Purdue held Northwestern to 84 yards on 42 carries. Saturday, the Boilermakers limited the Gophers to 65 yards on 25 carries.
Purdue's last two opponents are averaging a combined 2.2 yards per carry.
GAME BALL GOES TO: RB Dan Dierking -- The senior produced his second 100-yard rushing game with a career-best 126 yards on 12 carries. Dierking also rushed for more than 100 yards against Western Illinois on Sept. 11. Purdue surpassed the 200-yard mark for the fifth straight game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: LB Dwayne Beckford -- Beckford led the Boilermakers with 11 tackles at Northwestern. The sophomore shared team-high honors with safety Logan Link against Minnesota on Saturday, collecting seven stops.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We thought we would be 6-0 right now and ranked really high. That was our goal. I'm excited we're winning. We're 4-2, and there's only two or three teams that are undefeated in the Big Ten. We have a lot of work ahead of us." -- Coach Danny Hope.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Purdue's running game has manufactured 200 or more rushing yards in five straight games for the first time since 1973. The Boilermakers are averaging 222.4 yards during this stretch.
STILL NEEDS WORK: The passing game improved as Rob Henry threw for 163 yards, completing 13 of 20 passes. Henry did hit a 51-yard pass to freshman O.J. Ross, but the Boilermakers have to manufacture more in the passing game during the second half of the season.
--WR Keith Smith (knee) is out for the season.
--QB Robert Marve (knee) is out for the season
--WR Justin Siller (foot) will miss another two to three weeks.
--DT Justin Kitchens (knee) didn't play against Minnesota
--OL Ken Plue didn't start but did play. It snapped a string of 23 consecutive starts for Plue.
The TSX Files: Illinois, Purdue
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