Michigan State keeps bowl game hopes alive with road upset


Head coach Mel Tucker/ Photo credit: Sarah Smith

Liam Jackson, Sports Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Externally, football talk was secondary surrounding Michigan State leading up to its game against Illinois on Saturday. 

Internally, the Spartans handled their business on the field and upset No. 16 Illinois 23-15. MSU is now 4-5 on the year.

“We talked about not giving in and not waving the white towel,” said quarterback Payton Thorne. “That’s Michigan State football and that’s Michigan State period.”

Head coach Mel Tucker said the goal all week was to block out the noise and focus on what they could control.

“We felt good coming into the game,” Tucker said. “We felt we had an excellent opportunity to win the game if we could execute.”

The Fighting Illini were 7-1 and ranked in the College Football Playoff poll for the first time in program history. Head coach Bret Bielema has sculpted Illinois’ football team with a quintessential Big Ten blueprint. Defense and rushing.

Opposing teams were scoring less than nine points a game against Illinois coming into Saturday. That was good for number one in the country. Illinois’ defense also led the country in interceptions and yards allowed per game.

Not to be outdone, running back Chase Brown came into the game as the nation’s leading rusher with over 1,200 yards.

Illinois was heavily favored in Saturday’s game based on its success in these areas and the direction Michigan State has been headed on and off the field. 

Eight players were suspended by MSU for the incidents last weekend after the game against Michigan. All eight play defense.

Defensive depth was thin. Jacob Slade, the anchor of the Spartan run defense, missed the second half with an injury. Scottie Hazelton’s defense continued to make plays and stop the Fighting Illini. In the second half, Brown was stopped twice on fourth and short. Illinois finished the game one for six on fourth down for the game.

“It’s leadership,” said senior safety Xavier Henderson. “It starts with the coaches and goes down to the players. We came out here and stuck together and played really hard for the guys that aren’t here.”

Michigan State went for one-fourth down and converted. Jarek Broussard scored on an 11-yard rush a few plays later to put MSU up 16-7 in the fourth quarter. For the most part, the Spartans took advantage of crucial plays in the second half and Illinois did not.

A Jayden Reed 16-yard touchdown capped off another MSU drive that started in Illini territory. The Spartan lead grew to 23-7 before the fourth quarter.

While it may not look like an offensive outburst, 23 points might as well be against this Illinois defense. That matches the most points the Illini have given up all season.

The Spartans looked like a team that was undermanned and underwhelmed at the beginning of the game. 

Thorne threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage while targeting former Illinois tight end Daniel Barker.

“I was frustrated with that,” Thorne said. “But you’ve gotta put it behind you. There was a lot of game to play.”

The nation’s leading rusher took over from there and led the Illini to the two-yard line. The Spartan defense recorded the first of its five fourth-down stops and set the tone for the rest of the game. 

Although MSU was unable to get out of the shadow of its endzone, the stage was set for the first of many impressive punts by Bryce Baringer. 

“The punt in the first quarter was probably the best ball I’ve hit all year,” Baringer said.

Baringer averages nearly 50 yards per punt. No punter averages more. 

Three games remain for the Spartans in the regular season. Two more wins make MSU bowl eligible.

Henderson said reaching bowl eligibility is not what the team’s main focus is.

“I don’t think that’s what we are thinking about,” he said. “Especially with this past week being a tough week. We are just focusing on getting better.”