Michigan State is still seeking its first win within the Big Ten. The Spartans (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) have not started conference play so horribly since 1982 when they lost their first five Big Ten contests to finish 2-7 and 2-9 overall. They have not gone so deep into a season without a conference win since 1980 when they did not beat a Big Ten member until Nov. 8 of that year.
Illinois (2-6, 1-4) replaced interim head coach Bill Cubit with Lovie Smith after last season. However, that move has not yet produced noticeable results. The Illini are still trying to recover from losing more than twice as many games as they won under Tim Beckman. They need one more win to equal their number of Big Ten victories in 2015.
The Spartans lead the overall series against Illinois 26-17-2. Michigan State also holds the advantage in games played in Champaign, 13-9-1. Michigan State has won 12 of the past 13 meetings.
Michigan State at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN News
Spread: Michigan State -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Do the Spartans settle on a quarterback or continue shuffling the man under center?
A particular tactic can lead to stunning success in one situation. In another, the same tactic can contribute to frustrating failures. In last season's surprising upset at Ohio State, both Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry took snaps and attempted passes in substituting for Connor Cook. This season, both have shared time as quarterback in three games. In only one of those three did Michigan State emerge with a victory.
O'Connor has gained enough experience to lead the team after taking snaps in all but one game this year. He has double-digit passing attempts in every game except for the game at Maryland when he did not play. However, he has exceeded 200 passing yards in only four games.
Terry has played in three games this season. However, he has the same number of carries as pass attempts (14 each). He has only attempted passes in two games and all of his completions (he’s 6-of-14 on the season) came in the fourth quarter of the 31-14 home loss to BYU.
The Spartans' quarterback carousel has included two others in 2016. Brian Lewerke had attempts and completions in four games. However he will miss the rest of the season with a broken left leg. Wide receiver R.J. Shelton also has got into the act, completing two passes in the Oct. 15 loss to Northwestern.
Will Michigan State head Mark Dantonio keep trying to plug in and yank out different quarterbacks in hopes that one can lead them to a win? Is anyone capable of serving as his "go-to" guy?
2. Who will play quarterback for Illinois?
The Fighting Illini have also had three different quarterbacks take snaps this season. However, injuries, not ineptitude, have been the cause.
Wes Lunt began the season as the starting quarterback. A back injury knocked him out of the game against Purdue and has caused him to miss the past three contests. Chayce Crouch relieved Lunt against the Boilermakers and started and finished the following game against Rutgers despite injuring his shoulder. Crouch missed the past two games and head coach Lovie Smith announced after last week’s contest that the redshirt sophomore underwent shoulder surgery and was done for the season. That led to redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. starting each of the past two games, lopsided losses to Michigan and Minnesota.
Lunt’s status is a bit of a mystery, as the senior was dressed for last week’s game, but did not play. All Smith has revealed about Lunt is that he is “getting better.” If he’s able to play, there’s no dispute that Lunt would be the better starting option compared to a redshirt freshman who started the season third on the depth chart.
Assuming Lunt’s health is not an issue, Smith needs to decide what matters more for his team – giving the one with the most experience the starting nod at quarterback or turning the offense over with an eye towards preparing for next season.
3. Can the Spartans avoid another second half collapse?
In the last six games, Michigan State has been ahead at halftime twice. The Spartans had the lead going into the fourth quarter in another game. On another occasion, they trailed by only two points at halftime. Nonetheless, they lost all six games.
The fourth quarter has undone Michigan State's efforts for the most part. Opponents have outscored the Spartans 106-43 in the final quarter over those six games.
The upperclassmen on this team have experienced plenty of close finishes in their careers. They should be capable of handling the stress of pulling out a last-minute win or holding off an opponent trying to do the same. Will they find a way to replicate their successes of the past few years in hopes of finishing strong?
Illinois and Michigan State find themselves in the basement of their respective Big Ten divisions. Both need a win to keep any hopes of bowl eligibility and finishing with a losing record alive. But the question is does each team view their current situation the same?
Do the Spartans care at all about winning their four games in November just to qualify for a bottom-of-the-barrel bowl game? After all many on this roster played in the College Football Playoff last season and took part in the Cotton and Rose Bowls the two years prior. It appears that they gave their last bit of effort and desire in their attempted rally in the fourth quarter to upset their hated neighbors from Ann Arbor last Saturday. Failing in that, this team may just be going through the motions to end the season.
In contrast, if the Illini sweep their four remaining games, they will likely go to a bowl game. With a postseason victory, they would equal their most successful season since 2011. Illinois appears to have more motivation. That and home-field advantage will tip the scales slightly in favor of the Illini.
Prediction: Illinois 23, Michigan State 20
Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.