Spartans Pound the Illini Green, Embarrass Illinois 24-14 on Their Homecoming

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This one had that look early. The look that it could be a very long day for Illinois, and a very good day for MSU. And though it was far from perfect, the Spartans essentially blew out Illinois today before an Illini Homecoming crowd that began to boo in chorus mid way through the first half. The final score does not do MSU justice as the Spartans dominated this one from the beginning.

Though the Spartans could’ve completely blown Illinois out today, the victory may have come at a great cost as MSU potentially lost both Sophomores Keith Nichol and Glenn Winston to serious injuries. The Spartan Radio Network reported after the game that Nichol is out with a dislocated left elbow and Winston down with a torn up right knee, likely an ACL. Both guys could sadly be done for some time, if not the year. Depth cannot be underrated when building a program, and MSU may be singing its praises even more over the next couple weeks with the loss of two key players today.

Fast Start Sets the Tone

Illinois started their most important game of the season on Defense, and came out like a classic Saturday morning pancake, soft and flat. The Spartans didn’t waste time, and steamrolled the vulnerable Illini early, as So. RB/KR Glenn Winston brought the Spartans out to nearly mid-field on the opening kickoff. The Spartans would smoke Illinois from that point for the first half, and put together possibly their best opening 30 minutes in 2009.

The Spartan’s early domination on Offense was a credit to their line. MSU’s 17-0 Halftime lead, which probably should’ve been about a touchdown higher, included an impressive 149 rushing yards on the ground. Wearing down the Illini Defense play by play, both physically and emotionally, MSU’s offense looked to be clicking on a whole new level. Illinois could only muster 60 yards from scrimmage in the first half, a number more than quadrupled by MSU’s 281.

After sensing their momentum build in the Spartan’s second drive of the day, MSU went for the opportunity to stretch it further by going for a 4th and 3.  That was a great time to go for it on 4th down. It was early in the game, and the Illini were already on their heels, poised to take another big blow. Their team was flat, the crowd was flat, and the road ready Spartans were primed to keep moving the chains. All signs in the situation pointed towards “go,” and the MSU staff deserves credit for deciding to go for this one, regardless of what the result might have been.

On the 17 yard TD scamper for Fr. RB Larry Caper, his 5th TD of the season, the Spartan Offensive line again knocked Illinois off the ball early. But Sr. FB Andrew Hawken also added his second consecutive big block on a Caper TD run. Caper went untouched on this one, partially due to the failure of Illinois to show up to play in the first half today, and partially due to the impressive, aggressive, and imposing will of the “Pound Green Pound” MSU Offense.

It was nice to see Rs.-So. QB Keith Nichol get a start for the Green and White today, and nice that his fellow Rs.-So. QB Kirk Cousins could spend all but the final kneel downs healing up for the rest of the season. As it stands late Saturday afternoon, MSU looks as if it might need Cousins to take all the snaps for at least the next few weeks. While MSU might have had designs on starting Nichol again next week, if only to put Cousins in the best possible health for the home showdown that awaits with Iowa, that now seems impossible.

Yet, we now have something more tangible to compare Nichol with Cousins. Though Cousins has yet to play a complete game from start to finish, it appears next week will be his shot. Even better than having more material to compare the QBs, MSU enjoyed the great luxury of playing a young QB today who made many typical young QB mistakes, without it costing them the game. This really is an oddity. This was a conference game, on the road, against an apparently desperate opponent, fighting to revive their sinking season.  This was anything but a usual a scenario where you can afford to play such an inexperienced player at the game’s most important position.

Nichol threw more than a few balls throughout the game that looked destined for interception. Somehow, he squeaked by for most of the day until the Illini Defense snatched one that Nichol never should’ve thrown about mid-way though the 2nd half. However, both Nichol and the Spartan Football program benefited from his valuable game experience today.

The Spartan youth was also again on display offensively as Rs.-So. RB Glenn Winston powered through the Illini all day until leaving the game with a potential serious knee injury. Winston finished with 64 yards on 14 carries. Though he scored the first TD of the game, his primary teaching moment came from inside the 1 yard line during the 2nd quarter. On a 1st down, Winston dove for the goal too high, and from too far back. He coughed it up on the way down, costing MSU three more chances to get a TD from inside the 1.

Again, these are the plays of youth. Winston had perhaps his best day as a Spartan until the artificial turf in Champaign twisted and torque his right knee in a potentially destructive way. The whole Spartan team looked emotionally deflated after Winston went out for the day, and the Offense wouldn’t be quite as effective throughout the rest of the game. Had Winston remained healthy for the game’s duration, a blow out would’ve appeared on the scoreboard, and Illinois would’ve looked even worse than they did today.

Yet, true Fr. RB Larry Caper continues to get better and better with each passing game. Today you could mark the progress he’s made in honing his RB instincts, adapting to the speed of the Big Ten game, and perhaps most impressively, giving holes time to develop instead of trying to rush them. If you’ve ever seen a young back rush a hole that’s yet to develop, you’ve probably seen a play or two stop short of what it initially looked like it would become. Caper is making real strides in this area, only half way through his first year in Green and White. He has the look of the next great Spartan work horse-anchor of the backfield.

Second Half Seals the Deal

Illinois was quite an encore for Sr. DB Danny Fortner. Not only did he end up with 10 tackles on the day, Fortner built off the “immaculate deflection” in OT last week by picking off an Eddie McGee pass early in the 3rd quarter and taking it 45 yards for the Spartans only score of the 2nd half. Fortner’s pick-six (an increasingly annoying football term) was the last nail in the “hey, let’s bench our four year starting QB this week and claim it’s going to bring our team closer” ploy of Illini Head Coach Ron Zook. That idea couldn’t have played out much worse.

Zook’s unsettled Offense struggled all day to find any rhythm, and displayed the worst of what can happen when you rotate QBs in an Offensive system that relies so heavily on rhythm and timing. Neither Illini passer could develop a decent flow in and out of the huddle. They struggled mightily all day to make the fundamental play on offense, failing to click consistently at all until well into the 2nd half when the game was all but decided. Now that’s a “dang coaching mistake.”

But perhaps worst of all, the Illini did a dreadful job of putting the ball into the hands of their best playmaker, All-World WR Jr. Arrelious Benn. Benn had only 3 catches for 38 yards, in their biggest game of the year? MSU did try to take Benn out of the Illini’s game plan, but he’s honestly good enough to be a factor against any college football team in the nation. Getting so little out of Benn today is another “dang coaching mistake.”

As bad as the Illinois Offense looked today, the Spartan Defense built off “the good 55 minutes” LB/ST Coach Mike Tressel said they played last week against Michigan. MSU consistently produced a pass rush from the Defensive Line again today, and ended up with a half dozen sacks for the afternoon. Whether it was McGee or Williams under center for the Illini, MSU defenders were in the backfield causing havoc on many snaps. Only when the game was completely out of hand, and MSU players justifiably a bit shell shocked after seeing a rash of significant injuries in the second half, did Illinois begin to move the ball and tack on a long TD in vintage “garbage time.”

For a program that has been in a similar position of the Illini today, far more often than we wish we could remember, the Spartan Nation could easily appreciate what Illinois fans went through today. Early on, we could all see how the day was likely to unfold. By mid way through the 3rd quarter, the end result was evident. And after benched Sr. QB Juice Williams came in and over shot a wide open Illini receiver on what surely would’ve been a very long TD pass, any remaining hope of an Illini season saving victory was seemingly lost.

Letdown Avoided

Coming into this game, the number one question was which Illinois team would show up for their Homecoming. Today it looked a lot like a team that was crippled in frustration and disorganization. They looked anything but cohesive, anything but ready to play.

The game’s second big question, and first in the minds of the Spartan Nation, was whether MSU would suffer a letdown after the dramatic win over Michigan. Proudly, we can all say they did not. Not only was there no let down, there was an acceleration in the first half, as MSU flat out waxed the Illini up and down the questionable Memorial Stadium turf. Give theses players and coaches real credit for building off the Michigan momentum. What a welcomed change.

Where the season goes from here is a bit of a wild card. As of this moment, the status of at least two key offensive players is up in the air. The MSU offense was really beginning to build a foundation with So. RB Glenn Winston punishing opponents on the ground, and helping to open up a wealth of offensive possibilities. Rs.-So. QB Keith Nichol looked very good at times in first victory as a starter, on the road, and might have carried that momentum into a second straight start next week. The health and availability of those two players will obviously have a significant impact on rest of the year.

The great news for MSU is that they’re now back to .500, at 3-3, and 2-1 in Big Ten play. Next week is Homecoming in East Lansing, which again means Northwestern is coming to town. If MSU can win there, it will set up a big time battle with Iowa on the 24th, which will probably eliminate the loser from serious Big Ten contention. But as this football showed today, it really is best to play your schedule one game at a time.