Illini defense scorched in loss to Spartans

Illinois´ running back Pierre Thomas (30) tries to break through Michigan State defenders during Illinois´ first Big Ten game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois lost to Michigan State, 61-14. Josh Birnbaum

Illinois´ running back Pierre Thomas (30) tries to break through Michigan State defenders during Illinois´ first Big Ten game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois lost to Michigan State, 61-14. Josh Birnbaum

By Derek Barichello

Head coach Ron Zook said earlier this week that if the Illini defense could not stop the run, it would be a long day. He was not kidding.

On Saturday, Michigan State scorched the Illini for 376 rushing yards, which resulted in 705 yards of total offense and 61 points, both Memorial Stadium records.

Stopping the run was a concern for the Illini coming into the game after allowing 294 yards to California on Sept 17.

Spartans quarterback Drew Stanton said after watching game film on the Illini defense, he knew what the team wanted to do.

“Any time they play a cover-two shell, we wanted to be able to run the ball against them,” Stanton said. “They were not committing an extra guy to the box, so we could take advantage, especially with our offensive line.”

On its third drive, the Spartans were able to do just that, gaining 21 yards on the first play over the right end, 12 yards up the middle and then two rushes over the left tackle for 10 more yards apiece. The Spartans averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the game.

The Spartans had the most success running outside the tackles on Illinois’ cover-two defense.

“Their inside guys are good,” said Spartans offensive lineman Stefon Wheeler. “We knew we had to attack their weakness outside and that opened up the inside.”

Stanton said running outside the tackles put pressure on the Illinois secondary.

“That put them at a disadvantage,” he said. “How many cornerbacks can tackle a Jehuu Caulcrick or Jason Teague.”

Once the Spartans got the running game moving, the Illini were forced to commit more players to the line to stop it.

This opened up the field for the Spartans passing game, which garnered 329 yards on big plays, including a 75-yard strike to Spartans receiver Kyle Brown and a 30 yarder to receiver Kerry Reed.

“It made it easier to throw because that’s one more guy in the box that is not down field,” Wheeler said.

Illini head coach Ron Zook said the poor defensive performance was a result of missed tackles, which he said can be improved.

“Missed tackles are a result of no emotion, and that’s my fault,” Zook said. “Show me a good tackling team, and I’ll show you an emotional team.”

And It Does Not Get Any Easier…

Michigan State came into the game as the third-best rushing offense in the Big Ten averaging 237.7 yards per game, with only Minnesota and Wisconsin performing better.

The Badgers, who travel to Memorial Stadium on Oct. 29, average 272.3 yards per game.

And the Illini will play three more teams this fall who average more than 200 yards rushing per game – Purdue on Nov. 12, Northwestern on Nov. 19 and Iowa next weekend.

No Apologies

Spartans head coach John L. Smith made no apologies about running up the score Saturday.

“It is not our obligation to hold the score down,” Smith said. “Just like the other side has no obligation. We deserve it, we’ve worked hard, and we performed.”