Lovie Smith has the Illinois Fighting Illini off to their best start during his four-year tenure but they’ll get a stiff test this weekend as they travel to East Lansing to butt heads with the Michigan State Spartans.
Smith has Illinois (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) on the cusp of its first postseason since they took part in the 2014 Heart of Texas Bowl. To secure a spot on Saturday, he’ll have to crack a typically stout Michigan State defense. The Spartans (4-4, 2-3) still need two victories to become bowl eligible as they have lost three games in a row. To be fair, those losses were to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State, three teams in the top eight of the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
This head-to-head series dates back to 1955 when the Spartans upended Ray Eliot’s Illini 21-7. Michigan State also claims the overall record between the two schools 26-18-2.
The last time these schools met in 2016, Smith notched the third win of his career at Illinois in a 31-27 nail-biter. That marked the only time Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has lost to the Illini in four contests between the two — the Spartans have won 12 of the last 14 matchups.
Illinois at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State –14.5
When Illinois Has the Ball
Junior Brandon Peters continues to lead the Illini charge at quarterback. While not amazingly accurate (55.8 percent completion rate), he has managed 1,117 yards through the air to go with a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His main targets include wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe (25 catches, 420 yards, 7 touchdowns), Ricky Smalling (24, 225, TD), and Donny Navarro (11, 183, TD). Smalling is questionable for Saturday’s tilt with a leg injury, so Peters may rely a bit more on tight end Daniel Barker (12, 188, 2).
The Illinois ground game features some of its best weapons in running backs Reggie Corbin (557 yards, 5 TDs) and Dre Brown (442, 4). This crew will have to make hay against a front featuring defensive linemen Mike Panasiuk, Kenny Willekes, and Raequan Williams. Jacub Panasiuk may also get in on the fun but is questionable with a hip injury as of this writing.
For Michigan State, standout linebackers Antjuan Simmons and Tyriq Thompson help lock down the second level, although the Spartans must figure out how to account for Joe Bachie's absence the rest of the way. He has been suspended by the Big Ten due to a failed drug test. Meanwhile, cornerback Josiah Scott and safety David Dowell look to make life difficult for Peters as part of the Michigan State secondary.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke handles the signal-caller duties for the Spartans. His numbers are similar to Peters’ (56.1 percent completion rate, 1,764 yards, 11:4 TD-to-INT ratio), but his leadership can’t be quantified.
Lewerke's job will be a little tougher without top target Darrell Stewart Jr., as he team's leading receiver is out indefinitely due to an unspecified injury. Lewerke can still look for wide receiver Cody White (399 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Matt Seybert (195, 3). Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins leads the rushing attack with 545 yards and three touchdowns to his credit.
In what could be a major blow to the Illinois defensive front, Oluwole Betiku Jr. is questionable with an ankle injury. The news gets worse as would-be potential backup Jamal Woods is also a game-time decision. If they can’t go, Ayo Shogbonyo will have to lead the charge along with Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan. Jake Hansen, Milo Eifler, and Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week Dele Harding secure the linebacker spots. Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs should battle the Spartan receivers at cornerback, while Sydney Brown and Stanley Green stand ready the safety spots.
If you’re looking for your typical midday gruesome Big Ten slugfest, you may be in for a treat here. With Illinois on a three-game surge, motivation is high to secure bowl eligibility. However, Michigan State gets the comfort of a home crowd, and on paper, there’s no reason they shouldn’t clamp down on what the Illini bring to the party. Illinois showed itself to be opportunistic on defense last week against Rutgers with three takeaways and a pick-six, but these are the Spartans, not the Scarlet Knights.
Ultimately, it should come down to Michigan State's first two defensive levels versus whatever Illinois can throw at them. Other teams have laid out how to stymie Corbin and Brown. If Peters is shaken early and often, the Spartans get a fifth win and sit just outside of a postseason shot of their own. That’s not to say Illinois has no chance of upending Michigan State, far from it. Illinois leads the nation in takeaways, and if they wind up plus-two for the contest, they’ll be in a position to chalk up a win.