The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Fresh off a statement victory over their arch rivals, the 13th-ranked Michigan State Spartans carry their undefeated record into this weekend's Big Ten Conference showdown with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illinois is coming off a huge victory as well, as it beat Penn State decisively by a 33-13 final on the road to earn the program's first-ever win in Beaver Stadium. That victory was the third in the last four outings for the Illini, who are 3-2 overall.
"I think we talked about all week that Illinois has never won here and we had a chance to come up here and play a good football team, a well-coached football team, a great program in front of 109,000 people and do something that has never been done at the University of Illinois," said head coach Ron Zook after the win over Penn State.
As for Michigan State, it will be interesting to see if the team still appears hungry and focused after last week's 34-17 thrashing of Michigan on the road. The Spartans are now 6-0, an accomplishment that is all the more impressive when considering the recent health problems of head coach Mark Dantonio. He was on the sidelines Saturday as his team extended its winning streak over Michigan to three games, the longest over the Wolverines since the 1960s.
"I thought that to win this football game we were going to have to not just execute well but play beyond their excitement level, which I thought was very, very good for a football game," said Dantonio. "Michigan has always played with a great amount of passion and excitement these first five games, so I thought it was critical that we be able to match that or surpass that."
Michigan State owns a 24-17-2 series lead over Illinois, including a 24-14 victory in last season's matchup.
Illinois is posting 24.4 ppg this season while generating 353.0 total ypg, modest numbers by most standards. Most of the offensive production has come by means of a ground attack at accounts for 217.6 yards per outing. Mikel Leshoure leads the charge with 597 yards and three touchdowns on 104 carries, a healthy average of 5.7 yards per tote. Nathan Scheelhaase, the team's starting quarterback, has completed 59.2 percent of his tosses for 640 yards with four scores and four picks, numbers that won't scare Michigan State.
Give Illinois plenty of credit for its defensive play to date, as the squad is holding foes to 17.0 ppg and 304.8 total ypg. Opponents are only generating 3.7 yards per rushing attempt and 9.9 yards per pass completion against the Illini, who are permitting just 33 percent success on third down conversion attempts. There is room for improvement in one category for sure, as Illinois has only seven takeaways through five games.
Illinois rolled up 437 total yards against Penn State, 282 of which were generated by the ground attack. The Illini averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and Leshoure was certainly productive with 119 yards on 27 carries. Tailback Jason Ford threw a touchdown pass on a gadget play, and Scheelhaase tossed another score while completing 15-of-19 throws.
"Number one, Nathan is getting better, as we said he would," said Zook when asked to assess the play of his quarterback. "You can't buy experience. He just keeps getting better. He keeps working."
After allowing 13 points to Penn State in the first half of last weekend's game, Illinois shut out the Nittany Lions over the final 20 minutes. The Illini permitted just 2-of-14 third down conversion attempts to be successful, and as a result the Nittany Lions held possession of the ball for under 22 minutes. Illinois permitted a mere 65 rushing yards at a clip of 2.5 yards per carry and allowed only 10-of-26 passes to be completed.
Michigan State put forth a stellar offensive effort against Michigan, rolling up 536 total yards thanks to tremendous balance. The Spartans racked up 249 rushing yards at a clip of 5.9 yards per carry, and three of the four offensive touchdowns came on the ground. Edwin Baker led the charge with 147 yards and a score on 22 carries. As for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 284 yards and one touchdowns with no interceptions, he did a tremendous job of controlling the game.
Defensively, Michigan State did a remarkable job of containing Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who entered the contest as the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Sure, Robinson piled up some yards, but the Spartans intercepted three passes, key to the win.
"When you come away with three turnovers on defense and don't give up any on offense, it's tough to lose the football game," said a proud Dantonio.
Michigan State is posting 35.8 ppg and 473.2 total ypg this season, with well over 200 ypg being generated on the ground and through the air. The Spartans have gotten 683 rushing yards from Baker, while Le'Veon Bell has rushed for eight scores. Cousins has passed for 1,416 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interception.
Opponents are only averaging 18.3 ppg against Michigan State, which is permitting a mere 111.3 rushing yards per game at a clip of 3.5 yards per carry. The Spartans have 14 takeaways through six games, but they have posted a low total of six sacks.