By David Mercer, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) – The man charged with figuring out how to score points on Michigan State this Saturday says he has his hands full.
Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit made watching video of the Spartans’ defense — ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense — sound like a bad horror flick, one in which the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) could be the next victim of a monster that just won’t go away.
“They’re just relentless. And it’s not just one guy — it’s all of them,” Cubit said.
But the Spartans’ record (6-1, 3-0) doesn’t tell the whole story. While that defense is good, the offense right now isn’t.
The Spartan offense scored one touchdown last weekend in a 14-0 win over Purdue. Quarterback Connor Cook was 13-25 for 107 yards.
“Did we take a step back this last week? Probably,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
The schedule has helped. Since a late-September loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans have played Iowa, Indiana and Purdue, teams with a collective 8-13 record.
The middle of the season hasn’t been nearly as kind to Illinois.
Michigan State will end a three-game run against three of the top teams in the Big Ten. The Illini dropped the first two, against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said the three-game test has been a good barometer for a team whose biggest goal was to be better than last season’s two-win squad (check) and get the team’s first Big Ten win since 2011 (the losing streak is now at 16).
“We knew that we were playing the best and it’s a great mark to see where we are,” Beckman said. “We’re scoring points. We’ve got to play better on defense.”
Five things to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon in Champaign:
TRAP GAME? That term gets thrown around a lot in college football, but with Michigan ahead on the schedule for the Spartans, might it fit this week? Dantonio says it’s tough to tell. “Are your players too loose? Are they too uptight? I don’t know. I almost quit trying to figure that out,” he said. “I look in their eyes and see if there’s focus.”
PASSING ILLINI: Beckman’s right about Illinois’ offense scoring points — a very solid 35.3 a game. And the Illini are doing it mostly through the air. Illinois is averaging 287.7 passing yards a game, second in the Big Ten to only pass-crazy Indiana. Dantonio said senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase gives the Illini a steady hand and an element of surprise. “I think Scheelhaase is an established quarterback, a guy that can get out of problems and run with the ball,” Dantonio said. Scheelhaase has limited his running this fall, but had key carries last week against Wisconsin on a night the Illini struggled to run.
DEFENSIVE SLIDE: A big reason Illinois struggled to run against the Badgers was the huge hole the Illini defense dug early. Wisconsin scored three times in the first quarter. Down 21-0, Illinois had to go to the air. “Defensively, we’ve got to be able to start fast, which we did not do this week,” Beckman said.
DEFENSE AN OFFENSIVE THREAT: Of all the reasons to be concerned about Michigan State’s defense, defensive scoring may be Cubit’s toughest headache. “Every time I turn on the tape they’re taking a sack fumble or interception back for a touchdown,” Cubit said. The Spartans have five defensive touchdowns, more than any team in the country. The most recent was Denicos Allen’s 45-yard fumble return against Purdue. Dantonio’s defenses tend to score points. The Spartans had five defensive touchdowns in both 2007 and 2011.
WHAT ABOUT THE RED ZONE? The list of Spartan defensive superlatives is long: those five defensive touchdowns, their No. 1 national ranking in total defense at 228 yards a game, and the 27.3 percent rate at which opponents convert third downs — third in the country and best in the Big Ten. But a look at the red zone has to be truly discouraging for anyone playing Michigan State. Spartan opponents have moved the ball into the red zone 13 times in seven games. That means that, on average, teams playing Michigan State are going to get fewer than two close-range chances at the end zone a game. That helps explain one more defensive stat: Michigan State is giving up just 13.6 points a game, No. 4 in the country and, yet again, best in the Big Ten.
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