Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is averaging 257.7 yards while completing 65.7 percent of his passes. (Nati Harnik / Associated Press)
East Lansing — While pollsters tend to be more enamored with high-scoring offenses, coaches that see Michigan State on their schedule have a far different problem on their hands.
The Spartans offense certainly is far from potent some days, fairly competent on others. But there never seems to be an issue with the defense, and the No. 1 national ranking seems to bear that out.
“They’re relentless,” said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, whose Illinois team welcomes Michigan State on Saturday. “I think there is a pride element with those guys. Every time I turn on the tape they’re taking a sack/fumble or interception back for a touchdown. They’re just relentless and it’s not just one guy, it’s all of them. They get after you on the back end, on the front they get after you and the linebackers can really run around. You just don’t see a weakness.”
“Pat does an unbelievable job.”
Cubit was referring to Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who has had the Spartans among the top 10 in the nation three straight seasons. Cubit also saw his share of Narduzzi’s defenses during his eight seasons as Western Michigan’s coach. In back-to-back meetings in 2009 and 2010, the Broncos managed 14 points in each game.
This Illinois team appears in much better shape to surpass that total, averaging better than 35 points and 445 yards.
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is averaging 257.7 yards and completing 65.7 percent of his passes. He also has carried the ball 52 times for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And, running back Josh Ferguson has been effective, running for 335 yards and two touchdowns while leading the team in receiving with 23 receptions for 346 yards and three scores.
Combine that with a no-huddle approach that features various formations, and the Spartans defense will be tested.
“They’re going to do different things from five wide receivers in the backfield to your traditional sets and some sets where they’re going to put five offensive linemen on one side of the field,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “So they’re going to create problems … There are similarities with what (Cubit) did at Western, I think, as well as I think new things that they’ve been able to do.
“I think Scheelhaase is an established quarterback, a guy that can get out of problems and run with the ball.”
Backup quarterback Aaron Bailey also has seen some playing time, entering the game primarily as a running threat. It’s something Michigan State will start to see more the next few weeks with games against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern.
But middle linebacker Max Bullough says his unit is up for the challenge.
“We have to be disciplined,” he said. “Whether that’s in our pass drops, keeping our eyes where they’re supposed to be, our run reads and tackling the right guy.
“We’ve faced a lot of these quarterbacks before. ... We know what to do and guys know how to play against quarterbacks like this.”
Illinois has had plenty of experience facing tough defenses this season. It scored 17 in a loss to Cincinnati, the eighth-ranked defense in the nation, and 32 in a loss to Wisconsin, the sixth-ranked defense.
“My feeling is … if you don’t like challenges, then stay in the locker room and don’t bother coming out,” Cubit said. “These guys are really good, but that’s what football is all about.
“It’s not something you get to do every single weekend. For them it’s a big challenge and we need to meet that challenge, cause the guys on the other side want to stay No. 1.”
And Bullough has no intention of that changing.
“You look at Illinois, it has a good offense and is near the top of the Big Ten in yards per game,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of dynamic, explosive players that can make plays and have made plays all year, so we’ve got our hands full.”