A Closer Look at the Illini



Can the Spartans get a repeat of last year?  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.
Can the Spartans get a repeat of last year? Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

Illinois comes into this Saturday’s match with the Spartans feeling good after a 33-10 thrashing of the Nittany Lions. The Fighting Illini, who are 3-2 thus far, have lost to Missouri and #1 Ohio State. Illinois did not lay down for the top-ranked Buckeyes- instead they put up a good fight. You can bet that Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini will do the same against the Spartans.


  • The Illini offense is based on the rushing game, no doubt about it. Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse, similar in type to Denard Robinson, orchestrates the 114th ranked passing game in the nation. Scheelhasse’s passing stats are uninspiring: 640 yards, a 59% completion average, four TD’s and four INT’s on the year. However, he averages 5.5 yards per carry in rushing the ball. He is a legitimate weapon.


  • The Spartans’ success against Robinson suggests that Scheelhasse will have a rough day on Saturday. The Fighting Illini’s more potent weapon will be running back Mikel Leshoure.


  • Leshoure has four 100 yard games so far this season and three touchdowns. He averages 5.8 yards per carry and is truly electrifying. He can break free at any time for a big run. The Spartans focus on defense needs to be on him.


  • Illinois incorporates the Pistol offense into their game plan. They run three basic pistol formations, with Scheelhasse executing run options including the read option. Look for Illinois to spread the pistol formation in here and there.


  • Overall, Illinois has the 19th best rushing game in the nation. The overall offensive stats tell a much different story- 78th in the FBS in total offense (353 yards per game) and 81st in scoring offense (24 points per game). If the Spartans defense is well prepared, it will shut down the Illini scoring attack.


  • The Fighting Illini boast the 20th ranked total defense in the FBS and the 21st ranked in scoring defense. The team held the Buckeyes to only 24 points, who average 43 points per game.


  • The key to Illinois’ defense? Aggressive play. The Fighting Illini will come after you on every play on defense. This is why they have the third ranked D in the Big Ten. Michigan State needs to use that aggressiveness against them by running screen plays and such.


  • Outside linebacker Nate Bussey has been great in run support so far this season. Bussey is undersized, yet he is a big hitter. He will be very active on Saturday.


  • Overall, however, the weak part of the Illinois defense is the line backing core.
  •  The team’s linebackers have struggled all year. The Spartans need to “counter” that by running the counter play against the Illini.


Illinois also struggles on punt returns, kick returns, and turnover margin. The Spartans need to do exactly what they did last weekend: play smash mouth football, protect the ball on offense, and create turnovers on defense. If Michigan State does this, the team will have no trouble against the Fighting Illini.