Illinois at Michigan State
► Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
► TV/radio: FS1/760
► Records: Michigan State 4-4 (2-3 Big Ten), Illinois 5-4 (3-3)
► Line: Michigan State by 14
View from the other side
Bob Asmussen covers Illinois football for the Champaign News-Gazette and IlliniHQ.com. He breaks down the Illini for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Illinois game at Spartan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @BobAsmussen.
► Question: Is this three-game win streak a shocker, or were there signs things were building toward success?
► Asmussen: I'll be honest, it's a shocker. I have been covering the team 30+ years and there have been surprises in the past. The run to the Rose Bowl in 2008 comes to mind. So does the Big Ten title in 2001 and the strong finish in 1999. But this is at a different level. Three games ago, some people, not me, were asking "Who is going to replace Lovie Smith?" I always figured he would be around for 2020, but now is a certainty. To the second part of your question, there were a few signs like the close loss to Nebraska. But I didn't realize it meant the program had turned the corner. Now, it looks as though that is the case. It tells you a lot about players and their ability to tune out the rest of the world. There was a lot of negativity toward the team in town, but clearly it didn't bother the players or coaches.
► Question: What makes LB Dele Harding so productive for the Illini defense?
► Asmussen: The defense is designed for him to make a lot of plays. To his credit, he is not only holding his own, but starring. His current season is one of the best for an Illini linebacker in years. He is tackling everybody and also getting stops in the backfield, forcing fumbles and picking off passes. He leads the team in interceptions (three) and has returned two for scores. Remember, going into the season, he had no career interceptions and 82 total tackles. He has a chance to double that this season.
► Question: As good as the defense has been, what must the offense do to break out?
► Asmussen: Run, run and run some more. Reggie Corbin isn't likely to hit 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season, but he is the focal point of the offense. He’s a guy who can break a long run at any time. If he has a big day, Illinois can hang with anybody. He has a lot of help from an offensive line that is a strength of the team and from running backs Dre Brown and Ra'Von Bonner. They are all playing well. The running backs have different styles and that has helped them, kind of like a pitcher who can throw strikes with multiple types of pitches. Brown is a compelling story. He missed two full seasons earlier in his career with separate torn ACLs. Now, he is playing a high level. I think he is the only married guy on the team. Maybe that explains his success.
► Question: What player needs to step up for the Illini to extend their win streak to four?
► Asmussen: Easy — quarterback Brandon Peters. The Michigan transfer hasn't thrown much the past two games, He was just 3-of-6 for 26 yards in a steady rain at Purdue and 6-of-11 for 120 yards against Rutgers. One of these days, Illinois will need a 297-yard effort from him like he had against Eastern Michigan. Peters is capable of having a big day, and he also has found a way to help with his legs. His 54-yard run was the turning point against the Scarlet Knights. To win an important game on the road, Illinois must have a strong performance from Peters.
► Question: What would becoming bowl eligible mean for a team that had lost four straight at one point this season?
► Asmussen: It would be monumental, which seems appropriate since the Dick Butkus statue went up this season, right before the streak started. Illinois hasn't been to a bowl since 2014 and it feels like longer than that. The school hasn't won a bowl since 2011. That's a long time for a program not to taste bowl success. It would end any talk that Lovie Smith can't win in college and it will set up a 2020 season that has the looks of a big year for Illinois. The bulk of the team returns and three key injured players — running back Mike Epstein, corner Marquez Beason and receiver Trevon Sidney — will be back.
Players to watch
► Dele Harding, LB: The senior has been outstanding in the middle for the Fighting Illini, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors in the win over Rutgers by recording 12 tackles with two for loss, forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass that was returned for a touchdown. He currently leads the conference in tackling at 11.8 per game, which ranks fourth in the nation. Harding also has 8.5 tackles for loss this season with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns, adding an interception return for a score against Minnesota.
► Jake Hansen, LB: The junior was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. He leads the nation in forced fumbles with seven while checking in tied for second in recovered fumbles with three. His seven forced fumbles are the second-most in a season in Illini history behind only Whitney Mercilus’ nine in 2011. Hansen was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after posting 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and a tackle for loss the Illini’s upset win over Wisconsin.
► Reggie Corbin, RB: The senior ranks 12th on the Illinois all-time rushing list with 2,263 yards, 222 yards behind 11th-place Howard Griffith (2,485). His 6.6 yards per carry average ranks third among active FBS players and is the most for any Illini player with at least 2,000 rushing yards. Corbin has had 10 plays in his career of 50 yards or more and enters this week’s game ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards at 72.1 per game and fifth with an average of 5.3 yards a carry. He has two 100-yard rushing games this season, gaining 144 against Eastern Michigan and 134 against Nebraska.
Facts and figures
►On a roll: Illinois is on a three-game winning streak for the first time since starting the 2011 season 6-0. It has not won four straight Big Ten games since the 2001 Big Ten Championship team finished the regular season with seven straight conference victories. The last time Illinois won three straight Big Ten games was in 2014 and ’15, when the Illini finished the 2014 season with victories over Penn State and Northwestern, then beat Nebraska to start the 2015 conference season. The last time Illinois won three straight Big Ten games in the same season was 2007 when it won its final three games to reach the Rose Bowl.
►Defensive difference: Head coach Lovie Smith made his name as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, and the Illini defense is proving to follow that lead. They are first in the nation in handful of categories, including defensive touchdowns (tied, with five), turnovers gained (22), forced fumbles (17) and fumble recoveries (15). Illinois is currently second in the nation in points off turnovers (105) while ranking fourth in turnover margin (+1.33) and sixth in tackles for loss per game (8.4).
►Coming of age: The Illini had one of the youngest teams in the nation in 2017 and 2018, but this season features much more experience. Through nine games, the Illini have started a true freshman just three times after seeing 118 different true-freshman starts over the previous two seasons (86 in 2017 and 32 in 2018). Last year’s roster featured just eight seniors and 24 total upperclassmen, both the fewest in the nation, while the 2019 roster has 13 seniors and 48 upperclassmen. The 13 seniors this season are the ninth-fewest in FBS.