Michigan State at Illinois: Preview and Predictions

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The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 560-AM.

The records: Michigan State 6-1, 3-0 Big Ten; Illinois 3-3, 0-2.

The story line: Illini coaches have been quick to point out that the team had considerable success against Cincinnati’s and Wisconsin’s highly rated defenses. But MSU’s No. 1-ranked D, surrendering just 228 yards per game — 28 fewer than Virginia Tech’s second-ranked unit — is a much bigger challenge. The Spartans are in the top five nationally against both the run and the pass. They’re fast and furious, gnarly and nasty.

So what was coordinator Bill Cubit’s message to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the rest of the Illini offense at the start of this week?

“If you don’t like challenges,” he told them, “then you can just stay in the locker room. Don’t even bother coming out.”

They’ll come out. They may end up wishing they hadn’t, but they’ll come out.

Fortunately for the Illini’s woeful defense, the Spartans offense is one of the worst in the Big Ten. Running back Jeremy Langford is pretty good, but there are no real weapons around him. This is a chance for Illini coach Tim Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks to look something other than clueless in the afterglow of a conference game. They’d better make the most of it.

The line: Michigan State by 10.

Five predictions:

1. Steve Hull will continue to be a major factor for Illinois’ offense. The senior slot receiver, who seems to be better at this job than he ever was as a defensive back, ranks eighth nationally with 21.6 yards per reception. With MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard likely locking down Ryan Lankford, Hull and fellow slots Martize Barr and Miles Osei will have to beat inside coverage. Hull has displayed an uncanny ability to find open space well down the field.

2. The Illini can forget about running the ball. MSU’s Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and the rest of the Spartans’ run-stuffers are just too good. Josh Ferguson, one of the most versatile backs in the Big Ten, will be erased. Scheelhaase won’t have room to maneuver. Really, it’s all on Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to game-plan unpredictably, and on Scheelhaase to deliver on the passing plays that might make a difference. It’s a lot to hope for.

3. The Spartans will punt more times than Wisconsin and Nebraska did combined. That number totals four. It isn’t much to shoot for, but MSU’s offense is just bad enough to make this dream a reality for a terrible Illini defense.

4. With starting cornerback V’Angelo Bentley sidelined by an injury, true freshmen Jaylen Dunlap and Darius Mosely will get more snaps than they’ve gotten in any game this season. That makes this a prove-it game for Illini coach Tim Beckman, who’s in charge of the corners in addition to whatever else it is that he does. Watch closely, Illini fans. Beckman should be judged by this.

5. This game, for a welcome change, will be winnable for the Illini. They’ll be close in the fourth quarter. Will they be able to pull it out? In a word: No.

Greenberg’s pick: Michigan State, 27-20.

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