Two teams in need of victories and consistent play under center will meet when Michigan State heads to Champaign to square off with Illinois in a Big Ten showdown.
The Spartans’ loss last week to their instate rival Michigan Wolverines extended their losing streak to six games, while the Illini have lost six out of their last seven games. Both teams sit at a frail 2-6 record on the season.
While the Spartans showed progress in last week’s loss to undefeated Michigan, they ended up losing quarterback Brian Lewerke for the remainder of the season when he suffered a leg injury late in the fourth quarter.
The Spartans’ game of musical chairs for quarterbacks will continue this week after coach Mark Dantonio named both Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor as co-starters under center. Illinois, meanwhile, will most likely go with former NFL quarterback Jeff George’s son, Jeff George Jr., who has been stepping in for senior QB Wes Lunt the past three weeks.
“George is is part of a family legacy there and has done a good job there the last couple of weeks,” defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “If senior QB Wes Lunt can’t go, we expect to see George under center.”
The Spartans’ run game showed some great improvements last week, with sophomore tailback LJ Scott racking up 139 yards against the nation’s top defense. Defense has been a huge liability for first-year coach Lovie Smith’s team thus far, so expect the run game for MSU to play a big factor in this matchup.
Keep an eye on Illini redshirt freshman tailback Reggie Corbin, who is averaging just over seven yards per carry in conference play. “Their backs are good players and they run the ball fairly well,” Barnett said.
Whoever starts under center for the Illini will have to bring a spark to an anemic offensive attack, ranking just ahead of Rutgers in total offense in the Big Ten. Illinois standout wide receiver Malik Turner is a gametime decision, but if he can go, the MSU secondary has to be aware of where he is on the field.
“We don’t know if they’re going to have their top receiver [Turner] back, but he’s a good player and Lunt has some good pieces around him,” Barnett said.
On paper, the Spartans’ talent trumps the Illini’s, but it still is a conference road matchup, although Illinois’ only home win came back in Week 1. If there is one matchup to keep an eye out for in this game, it’s the battle between tailback Scott and Illini linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. Nickerson has been the Illini’s standout player and a force at the linebacker position, coming into this game ranking third in the Big Ten in tackles. If the Illini can move the football offensively, they could win this ballgame, but that’s been a problem for them all season as they rank 121st in the nation with 331 yards per game.