October 25, 2013

MSU will face another prolific offense

EAST LANSING - It was a question that Max Bullough answered as if he knew it was coming even before it was asked by the media.

That being if Michigan State's 3:30 p.m. matchup on Saturday at Illinois (ABC or ESPN2) represented a trap game with rival Michigan set to invade Spartan Stadium the following Saturday?

"For me, it just seems silly because I don't even think about it,'' said MSU's senior linebacker and one of the team's captains. "It doesn't even cross my mind thinking about Michigan right now. Whether who we're playing next week, it doesn't really matter but if I were to sense that and other guys thought the other guys felt like that, I guess I would just say turn on the film. Illinois has guys that are going to be playing in the NFL next year and the year after that. They've got great players and that this Scheelhaase kid is a guy that's done a lot for them and had a lot of success, so the minute you look past them is the minute you're looking back on Sunday and the next week doesn't mean as much as you want it to.''

The Scheelhaase Bullough was referring to was Illini senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has thrived in the new offensive system designed and activated by former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit, who is serving as Illinois' new offensive coordinator.

In that system, one that employs multiple sets, philosophies and approaches, Scheelhaase has racked up some impressive numbers for the Illini (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten).

In his six games, he has thrown for more than 1,500 yards in under 200 attempts, producing 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

"We've faced a lot of these quarterbacks before. Not necessarily this year but in the past because the Big Ten has had more and more of them,'' Bullough said. "So we know what to do. (Our) guys have played against quarterbacks like this and know that we just have to execute.''

Despite being winless in conference play, the Illini are averaging 35.3 points a game and nearly 450 yards of offense a game.

With a myriad of offensive sets some might be inclined to compare Illinois' offense to Indiana's video game style but Bullough says that would be a mistake.

"Indiana's purely a spread team, move the ball really fast, get a play in every 10 full seconds,'' Bullough said. "With Illinois, they can do the spread and do move the ball fast at some points but they also get in the power back game and run the ball on you. So they're a little bit like Indiana in the spread type of game but they other things in their arsenal and Indiana doesn't really. Illinois can line up five wide, empty backfield and come right back at you with a power set.''

And just like Purdue, Illinois leading rusher and receiver are one in the same.

Sophomore running back Josh Ferguson leads the nation in receiving yards per game by a running back at 57.7 yards per contest (346 yards on 23 receptions) and he ranks 6th in
the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage with 113.5 a game.

The Illini's top receivers who are not listed at running back are junior wideout Martize Barr and senior wide receiver Ryan Lankford.

Barr enters Saturday's Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium with 20 catches for 206 yards and a TD, while Lankford has caught 14 balls for 286 yards and a score.

This combination of Illini specialists will try and break a two-game win streak by MSU in the series that has the Spartans leading the overall series with a 25-17-2 advantage, which includes a 12-9-1 mark in Champaign.

While one of the trademarks of Illinois' offensive success lies in the fact that they have an experienced quarterback running the show, much of the team's success on offense has been greatly enhanced by an offensive line that is led by 6-foot-6, 315 pound senior left tackle Corey Lewis and features juniors at three of the other four o-line positions.

That line has helped Illinois' offense find extended success, scoring 30 or more points in four of its six games. But it has yet to face one of the nation's top defenses in MSU. One that is surrendering less than 60 yards rushing a game and is in the top 5 nationally in the FBS in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense.

Bullough, who captains the Spartans' defense and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors following his double-digit tackle finish against the Boilermakers, was responsible for the fumble against Purdue that was picked up and run in for a touchdown by senior linebacker Denicos Allen.

Allen is tied for the team lead in tackles with 43 with junior safety Kurtis Drummond, while Bullough's 42 stops round out MSU top tackling trio.

Eleven other Spartans have at least 10 stops among a defense that has 41 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and a whopping 45 quarterback hurries.

That adds up to a defense that is allowing just 13.6 points and 228 yards of total offense a game.

"Yeah, their defense is good, there's no question about it,'' said Illinois' Tim Beckman, who will be facing MSU for the first time as a head coach. "Their corners are very good coverage guys and are older guys. Their linebacker corps has been very successful and played a lot of football. Their defensive front is huge, so you can see why they've been so successful for so many years on defense."

While MSU's defense has gotten much, if not most of the credit for the team's success this season, the offense has been showing signs of establishing a stronger identity.

Led by sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, in the middle of his first season as a starter, the Spartans offense is now averaging a respectable and improving 363.1 yards of offense a game.

Cook's numbers are starting to look like someone who is more than just a game manager.

In 181 attempts he has completed 108 passes for 1,030 yards, which has included nine touchdowns against just two interceptions.

That has helped lead to an average of 28.1 points a game and a run game that has seen starting junior running back Jeremy Langford score eight touchdowns (seven rushing, one caught), while averaging 4.6 yards a carry after racking up 551 yards on 119 carries.

MSU's passing game, which appeared way out of sync three to four games ago is starting to gain momentum with a stable of improved wide receiving options that have included sophomore Macgarrett Kings, junior Tony Lippett and sophomore Aaron Burbridge.

The Spartans will also get a boost in the passing game if the only senior of the bunch, Bennie Fowler, is able to perform at full strength on Saturday after missing a game with what was thought to be a hamstring injury.

Kings leads the receiving corps with 25 catches for 287 yards and three TDs.

Blake Treadwell leads an experienced offensive line that features three 5th-year seniors.

"They have four offensive linemen back, they're physical (and) they're a big offense,'' Beckman said. "I think as you watch the games progress, they are getting better and better."

The Spartans have also showed signs of life from the tight end position in recent games with the emergence of redshirt freshman Josiah Price and the first touchdown scored by a tight end last Saturday when junior Andrew Gleichert hauled in his first career touchdown.

MSU's signs of life on offense may spell bigger troubles for an Illini defense, that eventhough led by senior linebacker Jonathan Brown - a Butkus Award candidate - has given up 32.3 points a game, including nearly 250 through the air and more than 200 on the ground.

In four of its six games, the Illini defense has surrendered at least 34 points, including a whopping 56 in a loss to Wisconsin last Saturday.

Despite those numbers, Illinois still has some standout performers on a defense that has some youth and inexperience at key positions.

Accompanying Brown's efforts, which lead the Big Ten and ranks eighth nationally in tackles per game at 11.0, are junior strong safety Earnest Thomas III and sophomore middle linebacker Mason Monheim.

Among a group that boasts 18 of its defenders with 10 or more tackles, Thomas III and Monheim have contributed 50 and 47 stops respectively.

While Illinois has just one interception and four fumble recoveries this season, they do have four players who have contributed four or more tackles for loss through six games.

WHAT TO WATCH:

FOR MSU: The offense must continue to take steps forward and in a big way here because MSU's defense will do its job in holding Illinois' offense down, they won't be effective late in the game if the offense falls into the trap of numerous three-and-outs. So maintaining a lead in time of possession will be key.

FOR ILLINOIS: As impressive as the Illini's offense has been, the defense has been just as disappointing. Illinois must force some turnovers and win the special teams game if they want to have a chance of earning a Homecoming victory over the Spartans. A turnover for a score would really help the Illini's cause.

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