Is a Letdown Looming? Spartans Regroup for Road Date with the Desperate Fighting Illini

Jonathan Schopp

How many times have we seen a college team come off a big home win only to lay an awful losing egg the next week against a lesser opponent? Fortunately, the Spartans welcome that challenge again this Saturday, after saving the season last week with an Overtime win over Michigan. MSU travels west to take on the most beleaguered bunch in the Big Ten right now, Illinois. Much like a wounded animal roaming in the wild for survival, the Illini should be at their most dangerous and desperate come high noon Saturday. Therefore, the Spartans cannot afford an ugly and flat performance. They must build off the Michigan win rather than deflate from it.

“Our players see this as an opportunity,” Coach D told Spartan Nation on Tuesday. “When you’re a one-and-three football team, like Illinois is, it’s tough…but after a big win, we hope it propels us forward.” Coach D recognized the possibility of a letdown though, and feels the Spartans can address that concern with the attitude they bring into Champaign. “We've got to come over there emotional and prepared to play.”

Coach D admitted the Spartans obviously aren’t where they expected to be at this point in the season, but a win Saturday would bring them one step closer to getting back on track. Yet, the fear of a letdown is still present and real. “When you play a team that’s out of your conference that you’re supposed to beat, that’s when there’s maybe a little bit of a letdown,” Dantonio said. So at least in theory, a letdown isn’t as likely this week.

When it comes to keeping the Spartans’ focus and readiness as sharp as it was during Michigan week, Dantonio told Spartan Nation it all starts at the top. “(The) Head Football coach needs to do that. The responsibility lies on my shoulders, then on our assistant coaches.” Then Dantonio got more specific, “…every one of our position coaches needs to personally motivate our players.” But the work to keep the focus and intensity up doesn’t stop with the coaches, “…then it goes to the Seniors and the Captains.”

The Spartans must take Coach D’s words as the truth. But any talk about being focused and inspired to play Saturday won’t win a thing. Their play will say everything about the team’s focus and inspiration. As great a victory as Saturday was, it was more so a savior and relief. What could’ve been on Saturday, honestly would’ve been crippling to this program. Each player, to a man, must bring his game with yet a renewed passion and focus this week for Illinois.

Any Fight Left in the Illini?

At 1-3, Illinois might not be that easy an opponent. This is a team with more talent than their record shows. Much like MSU last weekend, Illinois knows their season is hanging in the balance with this game. On paper, you would think the Fighting Illini would bring all of the fight they have left on Saturday. That should make them an imposing opponent that obviously cannot be taken lightly.

As tough as it will be for MSU, things really don’t set up that easy for Illinois either. Illini Head Coach Ron Zook told Spartan Nation as much earlier this week. “They really are a challenge (Offensively), they’ve got two Quarterbacks, a stable full of Running Backs, they’ve got receivers…different formations, personnel groupings, and an Offensive Line that has really impressed me.” The numbers back Zook up, as the Spartans are statistically one of the top Offensive units in the Big Ten thus far in 2009.

But the main story of this matchup is Zook’s decision to bench Sr. QB Juice Williams, who the Spartan Nation last saw in his “coming out party” as a promising Freshmen in East Lansing four years ago. But the reaction from the locker room to Zook’s wholesale changes has thus far has been good, according to the Illini Head Coach who may be nearing the point where he’s coaching for his job. “The biggest thing is, both of our Quarterbacks are very well liked, and both of them are leaders.”

Zook went on to say something diametrically opposed to traditional football logic. He told Spartan Nation that benching his Sr. starting QB Williams and shuffling the line up mid way through the season might have “helped us (Illinois) and brought us closer together.” I understand what he’s spinning there, but in reality I don’t see how that is likely. You’re telling me that benching your star, the guy who has started at the most important position in your whole program for more than three years, is going to bring your team closer together? It sounds like a recipe for long division.

Now, it might fire Williams up and bring the best out of his game. But it might also begin to divide deeply the locker room in Champaign. More and more Illini might begin to fight for themselves first, perhaps fearing a loss of playing time, instead of fighting for the team’s interests first. It’s happened before, at more than just a couple programs mired in seasons that began to slip away to disappointment.

The Comeback Continues

As the Spartans attempt to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves early this year with a 1-3 start, each successive game from this point will increase in importance. We talked weeks back now about the three game stretch of ND, UW, and UM, being the most important of the season. Coming out of that set with a 1-2 record, the Spartans must now work much that harder to have any hope of getting a look at a quality bowl game in 2009.

It cannot be said any simpler than this, if the Spartans do not come out and match or exceed the intensity of Illinois Saturday, for the whole game, MSU will lose and the season will again be put in peril. This program cannot afford to miss a bowl game after making two straight. This program cannot afford a season without a winning record, after having two straight. Nor can they afford a finish in the bottom third of the Big Ten standings. And perhaps most importantly, they cannot display the immaturity of a program that cannot the handle success of knocking off their most bitter rival in such a dramatic fashion.

The Spartans will ultimately control their own destiny come Saturday afternoon. The Illini are a very troubled team, though potentially dangerous too. They are a couple of plays away from essentially throwing in the towel on 2009. MSU Football has more than enough talent and poise to handle the Illini with a solid and impressive road effort, which would make six straight W’s in Champaign. Though the possibility of a Spartan letdown is a valid concern, the Head Coach isn’t too worried about that happening this weekend. He reminded Spartan Nation, “we’ve not had that (a letdown) since we’ve been here.”

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