FACTS & STATS: Site: Memorial Stadium (60,670) -- Champaign, Illinois. Television: ABC. Home Record: MSU 5-0, Illinois 3-1. Away Record: MSU 1-1, Illinois 0-1. Neutral Record: MSU 0-0, Illinois 0-1. Conference Record: MSU 3-0, Illinois 0-2. Series: MSU leads, 25-17-2.
GAME NOTES: Big Ten Legends Division leader Michigan State steps into Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Michigan State sits at 6-1 on the season and is off to a 3-0 start in the Big Ten after blanking Purdue this past weekend, 14-0. However, things will get awfully tough on the back end of the schedule. Following this contest, the Spartans have home games remaining with Michigan and Minnesota, and they'll visit Nebraska and Northwestern.
Whereas MSU is unbeaten in conference play, the Fighting Illini are off to a 0-2 start in their Big Ten slate. Both of those contests were rather one- sided, as they followed up a 39-19 loss at Nebraska with a 56-32 home loss to Wisconsin this past Saturday. The Illini could certainly use a win here on Homecoming Weekend before hitting the road for three of the next four weeks.
Michigan State has won nine of the last 10 meetings with Illinois to take a 25-17-2 lead in the all-time series.
Despite their place atop the Legends Division, it has been a week-to-week battle for the Spartans on offense. After putting up 42 points against Indiana in their previous contest, the Spartans did not make it past the Purdue 32- yard line until the fourth quarter. That possession resulted in the team's only offensive touchdown of the game, which came on a trick play as receiver Tony Lippett threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Gleichert to make it a 14-0 game. MSU finished with just 294 yards of total offense, and it enters Saturday's tilt ranked 95th in the nation in total offense (363.1) and 106th in passing (177.0). Jeremy Langford had a solid day against Purdue, running for 131 yards on 24 carries. However, quarterback Connor Cook completed only 13-of-25 passes for 107 yards on the day.
Michigan State's top-ranked defense gets the credit for the team's hot start, and rightfully so. After all, the unit leads the nation in total defense (228.0 ypg), rushing defense (59.1) and passing efficiency defense (88.4), and it ranks fourth in points allowed (13.6 ppg). While the offense struggled against Purdue, the defense was once again on point.
Denicos Allen provided the first score of the game with a 45-yard fumble recovery and return for a touchdown. It was the team's fifth defensive touchdown of the season. That play was made possible by linebacker Max Bullough, who jarred the ball loose when he hit Boilermakers quarterback Danny Etling. Bullough recorded a season-high 10 tackles to go along with his forced fumble, as he was named this week's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
Illinois dug itself an early 21-0 hole in the first quarter against Wisconsin and was never able to recover. Two quick punts and a lost fumble deep in its own territory paved the way for those early touchdowns by the Badgers. Still, Illinois lived up to its name and showed plenty of fight the rest of the way. Nathan Scheelhaase continued his fine season with 249 yards on 20-of-27 passing, and he also ran for a TD. Reilly O'Toole also got some work under center, as the team finished with 300+ passing yards for the fourth time this season and first time in a Big Ten game since 2011. Steve Hull headlined the receiving corps with 105 yards on six catches.
Defensively, the 56 points allowed against the Badgers marked a season-high for the Illini. Working with a short field on a handful of possessions certainly did not help, but nor did the gap discipline against the run as Wisconsin piled up 289 yards and six scores on the ground, averaging a healthy 6.3 yards per carry as a team. The Badgers held a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession and came away with touchdowns on all seven of their trips inside the red zone. Zane Petty paced the Illini with a game-high 14 tackles, while Earnest Thomas III posted 11 stops. On the season, Illinois ranks 98th nationally in scoring defense (32.3 ppg) and 104th in total defense (454.5 ypg).
On paper, this is just a tough all-around matchup for the Fighting Illini. They'll need to air it out to have a chance, but can they move the ball with any consistency against Michigan State's stout defense? Points may be at a premium in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Saturday, October 26, 3:30 p.m. (et)