Spartans quarterback Connor Cook needs a better week throwing to complement the running attack. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Keys to the game
Pound, Green, pound
It’s a phrase that dates to the early days of George Perles and is still used today when describing how the goal is to run the ball first. It’s been working well since the Big Ten began —the Spartans are averaging 186.l yards. Junior Jeremy Langford has gone over the 100-yard mark each of the last two games and figures to have another good shot at it this week as Illinois is allowing 211 yards.
Regain the balance
In victories over Iowa and Indiana, the Michigan State offense looked as good as it has because a solid passing game complemented the running attack. QB Connor Cook struggled against Purdue as Michigan State managed seven offensive points. Cook will need to regain some of the confidence he had in order to keep defenses, even one as bad as Illinois’, off-balance.
That’s how Michigan State’s defensive backs refer to the secondary, and through seven games, it has been an apt description. The Spartans have eight interceptions but will be tested by an Illini offense averaging 287.7 yards, second in the conference.
Michigan State is the only FBS team to rank in the top five nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. With the offense struggling last week, the defense earned its first shutout since 2011 and first in the Big Ten since 1999.
One game at a time
With Illinois 0-2 in the Big Ten, looking ahead to next week’s showdown against rival Michigan would seem natural. But Michigan State has emphasized taking care of business each week and has been successful. It will be even more vital this week as Illinois has the ability to score and pressure the Michigan State offense.
Know the foe
Former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, in his first season as offensive coordinator, has made a huge impact. The Illini is averaging 446.2 yards, more than 150 better than it averaged last season. The Illini also is averaging 35.3 points, nearly a 20-point rise from last season, and its passing efficiency has jumped from 102nd in the nation to 14th (157.16).
While Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has emphasized big plays, it has been Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase who has produced. He has five pass plays of 50 yards or better, tied for seventh in the nation. WR Steve Hull is eighth in the nation, averaging 21.6 yards per catch while Ryan Lankford is 13th at 20.4 yards.
LB Jonathan Brown is a Butkus Award candidate and leads the Big Ten and is seventh nationally in tackles (11 per game). Brown, named to Phil Steele’s midseason All-America third team, is second in the conference in tackles for loss (1.25).
Michigan State has lost to Illinois once since 1995 — in 2006 at Spartan Stadium. Jason Reda kicked the winning 39-yard FG with six seconds remaining as the Illini ended a 10-game Big Ten losing streak. The last loss for Michigan State at Memorial Stadium came in 1992.
On the road again
Michigan State is 16-9 in Big Ten road games under Mark Dantonio, including 10-3 since 2010. Michigan State has won its only Big Ten road game this season, at Iowa.
The game ends Illinois’ three-game, conference-opening stretch against the only three that have played in Big Ten championship game —Nebraska (5-1), Wisconsin (5-2) and Michigan State (6-1).