Michigan State 23, Illinois 15: Illini blow it on an afternoon that resembles bleak past

The Illini bumbled and stumbled throughout, but at least they’re still in command in the Big Ten West.

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Michigan State v Illinois

Michigan State’s Ben VanSumeren is psyched during the Spartans’ upset of Illinois.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — So much for Illinois’ slick little first-ever College Football Playoff ranking. All the talk about the Illini living large in the AP Top 25 suddenly rings hollow, too.

While we’re at it, we can quit with the oohing and aahing at the Illini defense’s flashy statistics. Yes, the unit came into Saturday’s supposed-to-be-easy game against Michigan State ranked No. 1 in the country in so many categories — points allowed, yardage allowed, touchdowns allowed, interceptions and more — it was wild. But statistics don’t mean squat when the pressure is mounting, a play needs to be made and no one seems to be raising his hand.

It’s hardly the end of the world that Illinois was upset by Michigan State 23-15 at Memorial Stadium. At 7-2 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play, the Illini remain in first place in their division and have what is, all things considered, a sweet set-up the rest of the way — a home game against beatable Purdue, a road game against mighty Michigan and a road game at last-place Northwestern.

Even with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue all at 3-3, the Illini still are in great shape because they own tiebreakers over the first three of those teams. Beat the Boilermakers, and fans here will be too busy celebrating — and looking into travel plans for the conference championship game in Indianapolis — to remember one brutally bad afternoon against a Spartans squad that was supposed to be no good and only getting worse.

All week, the Spartans (4-5, 2-4) faced blistering criticism after several of their players violently beat a pair of outnumbered Michigan players in the stadium tunnel immediately following a blowout rivalry loss in Ann Arbor. Eight Spartans players were suspended before the Illinois game, all of them potentially facing charges. Mel Tucker’s team had been a shadow of last season’s successful version even before things turned disastrous at the Big House.

A game at Illinois — which, for two months, could do no wrong — seemed almost like an unfair assignment. Instead, though, the Spartans lined up and challenged the physical Illini from the get-go. And as the game went on, it was the Illini who repeatedly faltered, so often that it began to resemble many a dark, depressing afternoon past at Memorial Stadium.

The brutal wind didn’t make it easier on either team. Only one team figured out how to cope with it. Add failing to do so to the Illini’s list of bumbles and stumbles.

“A lot of it was self-inflicted,” coach Bret Bielema said. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘This is the definition of how to lose a game.’ ”

On the very first play from scrimmage, though, Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne threw into the wind and was intercepted by Illini safety Sydney Brown. Here we go again, right? Nope. The Illini drove to the 2-yard line before turning the ball over on downs — something they’d do four more times before the game was over.

Brown’s twin brother, Chase, came in leading the nation in rushing yards and piled up 136 more. But he also lost a huge fumble after an 18-yard run to the outskirts of the red zone in the second quarter and was stopped on fourth-and-short two other times.

The second of those fourth-down stands, deep into the fourth quarter, ended a 79-yard drive. The drive began with the Illini at their 1-yard line after a perfect 62-yard punt by Bryce Baringer, who also had a 68-yarder and averaged a hair under 50 in difficult conditions. Illinois’ Hugh Robertson, on the other hand, averaged 21 yards on his punts and booted one of them, ridiculously, directly into the rear end of one of his blockers. That set up the Spartans at the Illini 29 for a short touchdown drive.

“We’re not a good enough football team to have those things happen and be able to overcome it,” Bielema said.

That’s the truth.

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