Michigan State-Illinois: Brutally Honest Game Preview

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Ah there’s nothing quite like it when your alma mater takes on your MBA school. It happens every year, the conflicted feelings and ambivalence…OR NOT! When your grad school and undergrad clash, you ALWAYS go with the institution that awarded you your primary degree. And with apologies to the first Kanye West album, “you know what will keep me warm this winter- all those degrees.” 

For two “basketball schools,” the IllinoisMichigan State contest should be a very good one, and among the best contests on the Big Ten slate this Saturday. This marks the 44th meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Spartans and the first at Spartan Stadium since 2006. Michigan State holds a 24-17-2 overall series advantage and leads 12-8-1 when playing in East Lansing. Last season, the Spartans won 24-14 in Champaign after the series took a two-year hiatus in 2007 and ’08.

By Paul M. Banks

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Throughout the season, I’ll be bringing you these informative yet blunt game previews of every contest I cover and a second game that week that interests me. Except for this week because I’m exhausted from covering college basketball media days, doing a ton of driving to get there and back, and the whole Favre-Sterger Sexting Scandal; Anyways, we have a heavy focus on my three “home teams” Northwestern, Illinois, Notre Dame, and the Big Ten in general.

Michigan State synopsis: At 6-0, Sparty is benefitting from having their first seven games in the state of Michigan. After this home contest, their 8th will be in Evanston, where the crowd will be about 40-50% green and white. Economic depression or not, MSU people travel very well, and there are a ton of Spartan faithful in Chicago to buy up all those tickets that Northwestern fans do not. A favorable schedule sounds like an 8-0 start. Proving me right yet again, when I said in August that the Spartans were this year’s Big 10 sleeper team, and likely headed for a second or third place finish.

Of course, we know they traditionally slump in November, so maybe we should not get ahead of ourselves. Currently State is buzzing from the defeat of their hated “Big Brother” in Ann Arbor, the third consecutive season they have done so. 

Don’t rule out the possibility of a let-down this week, as we remember the last time Illinois came up here, and got their first conference road win since the Red Grange era. Actually, the last time the two teams met in East Lansing, true-freshman quarterback Juice Williams led Illinois on a last-minute drive that ended with a 39-yard Jason Reda field goal with six seconds left to give the Illini a 23-20 win. That victory snapped a nine-game losing streak against Michigan State and was Illinois’ first win over the Spartans since 1992. Then came the ugly scene when the Illini planted their flag in midfield of Spartan Stadium, the home team got offended and fisticuffs ensued. The whole scene was uglier than your typical redneck brawl on a bad episode of Jerry Springer. Oh who am I kidding? Every episode of Jerry Springer is bad!

Saturday’s game at MSU will be the second of three straight Homecoming games for Illinois. Last week, the Illini handed Penn State its first Homecoming loss since 2004 and will now try to spoil the Spartans’ Homecoming celebration, just like they did in 2006. Next week, Illinois will celebrate its 100th Homecoming anniversary when Indiana comes to Champaign.

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Illinois synopsis: The defense has made big strides this year under new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Illinois currently ranks 21st nationally in points allowed (17.0 ppg), 20th in total defense (304.8 ypg), 32nd in rushing yards allowed (117.0 ypg) and 56th in pass efficiency defense (121.09). At the end of last season, the Orange and Blue ranked 96th in scoring defense (30.2 ppg), 91st in total defense (403.3 ypg), 76th in rushing defense (154.4 ypg) and 103rd in pass efficiency defense (142.77).

Illinois’ two losses this season (Missouri and Ohio State) have come by a combined 21 points against teams that are both currently ranked in the top-25 and are a combined 11-0 this season. In its other four games, Missouri is averaging 38.5 ppg and in Ohio State’s other five games, the Buckeyes are averaging 47.0 ppg. Against the Illini defense, those teams had 23 and 24 points, respectively, both season lows at this point in the season.

 Illinois is one of only three teams in the nation to score on all of its red zone drives this season. In 16 trips inside the 20, the Illini have scored nine touchdowns and seven field goals. East Carolina (18-18) and Memphis (8-8) are the only other teams with a perfect red zone scoring percentage.

Guys you’ll see Saturday eventually playing on Sundays:

For State, Greg Jones could be the first inside linebacker taken next April. Of course, no one knows these days where ILBs will go in the NFL. I also like the potential of TE Charlie Gannt, WRs Keshawn Martin and Mark Dell. Defensive Tackle Jerel Worthy could be a top 5 pick in 2012.

 Mikel LeShoure is not Rashard Mendenhall yet. But there’s an outside chance he could be someday. Martez and Tavon Wilson (no relation) have NFL measurables and athleticism, but have not displayed the football resume and instincts of a prospect for “The Shield,” so far. But then again look at former Illini DT Josh “I’ve had a little bit too much, much” Brent. He made the Dallas Cowboys despite accomplishing nothing on the collegiate gridiron.

And don’t forget Senior punter Anthony Santella ranks second in the nation in punting average.

Prediction to be taken with a grain of salt (actually make that a whole truckload of salt)

MSU 21, ILL 17  (Banks’ 2010 record 9-3, I guess that gets me into a New Year’s day bowl! Maybe the Citrus Bowl- Huzzah!)

I’m guessing there won’t be a whole lot of passing in this one, given the nature of these two teams. So the game will fly by quick. It’ll be interesting to see how the Illini contain MSU QB Kirk Cousins. However, State’s defense is pretty stout too, and I don’t think Illinois has enough weapons to overcome it.

Usually, football more often serves as a distraction in E.L. until basketball/hockey season arrives. This year is a different story. The ghosts of Duffy Daugherty and Bubba Smith are very proud this autumn.  

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net , a Midwest webzine. He is also a regular contributor to the Tribune’s Chicago Now network, Walter Football.com, the Washington Times Communities, Yardbarker Network, and Fox Sports.com

You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank

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