Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State (6-1 3-0) vs. Illinois (3-3 0-2)
A look at this week’s opponent…
The Illini come into this game losers of their last two games, but not because of the offense. MSU comes in having won their last three, but according to Mark Dantonio, “Did we take a step back this last week? Probably.”
The Spartans are fortunate to be owners of a weak schedule and playing in a weak conference with the nation’s best defense. That has Spartan Nation smelling roses, but also cognizant that this team can’t afford to go back anymore. This is a critical game.
When MSU has the ball…
Michigan State must have improved play from the QB. Dantonio considered benching Connor Cook after playing terrible for the first 75% of the game, but finally he gained his confidence back and the offense showed some signs of life.
MSU played one of the worst defenses in the nation last week and made them look like the ‘85 Bears. Although this defense is better, they are still not good. MSU can’t afford to take any breaks. Illinois will score points and the defense can’t do this on their own like they have most of the year.
MSU must run the ball and stay with it…Pound Green Pound. Mark Dantonio made the switch at QB because he wanted more of a playmaker. Cook, up to this point, has frustrated the staff by not being the playmaker they believe him to be. He must be more technique sound and run with the ball.
It seems that I say this every week. MSU must pass when they want to and not when forced to. Just like I predicted against Indiana, the Illini can score and that will put pressure on the MSU offense to get the ball in the endzone.
Illini will do what everyone does and stack the box. They will dare Cook to beat them. The talented youngster needs to see that as a challenge. He needs to make it personal that the Illini would dare him to come to their school and personally beat them on homecoming.
If everything about the offense remains the same from last week, other than the execution and performance of Cook, the Spartans will be fine.
MSU must go down the field to force Illinois out of the box and when they do, devastate them with the run. If I were MSU I would open with a pass and keep them honest and run, run, and run.
Connor Cook is the biggest single reason the Spartans win this game or lose it. The defense will perform, his team will, and it is days just like this that legends are born. Cook has a chance to show his teammates and Spartan Nation that last week was a bad game. On the road, in the Big Ten with your opponent all but daring you to beat them is where legacies are formed. He can do it. Will he?
When MSU is on defense…
Illinois is relentless. Bill Cubit is one of the finest offensive minds in America. He is on offense what Pat Narduzzi is in defense. Don’t take a potty break when these two are facing off. Illinois will go right at the Spartans self-described “No Fly Zone” defense.
Cubit said it best to me this week. “They are great. You can’t simulate them in practice. Every position and every player is aggressive and assignment sound. There is a reason they are the nation’s best and I believe it. At the same time we aren’t going to just give up. We have to go out and make them earn that title this week. We are out to win and we will attack like it.” I love that mentality.
The Spartans must keep their eyes on the ball when it is in the air. Illinois wants to run and will make the Spartans shut that down. I do not expect MSU to stack the box as much as they have all year. I think they will stay in their usual quarters coverage, but I look for some interesting scheming to not only get some pressure, but to also get help in the flats.
MSU knows that Illinois will be balanced. They won’t go one dimensional and this makes their offense what could be the biggest test of the Spartans so far.
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don’t remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus five ratio at least every game.
Cook has not shown an inclination to give up the ball. He and his team can’t give Cubit a short field.
To me the biggest intangible for this game is mindset. MSU needs to start fast and that point has been hammered home at practice this week. Illinois fans know and respect the MSU D, so shutting them down is expected. If the MSU offense allows Illinois to stay in the game that brings the crowd roaring back to life and could be hazardous to the Spartans chances of going 7-1.
MSU must start fast on offense. The first quarter is critical to this game.
Narduzzi vs. Cubit is worth the price of admission. Two great coaches. Two great men. Illinois will score, but not dominate. This game rests on Cook and Warner. QB Coach Brad Salem insists they have worked hard at lighting a fire under Cook and that, even though he is not in danger of losing his job, they have been successful in doing that.
IN the end the Spartans defense does enough to make it happen with a late pick six and MSU wins this 17-14.