Matchup to watch: Illinois defense vs. Michigan State offense

This may seem like too obvious of a choice, but the Illini defense and Spartan offense will likely provide a big-time battle to determine the outcome of Saturday’s matchup in East Lansing, Mich. Illinois is ranked third in the Big Ten in opponents’ average yards per game (304.8), while Michigan State is ranked second in the conference in offensive yards per game (473.2).

The Spartans’ offensive unit is led by junior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who averages 236 passing yards per game and has accounted for 49.9 percent of Michigan State’s total offensive yardage with his arm.

On the ground, sophomore running back Edwin Baker paces the Spartans, averaging 113.8 yards per game.

“They’re pretty good because they are balanced,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “Being able to run the ball like that, what that does is obviously (open up) the play action, bootlegs and things like that… When you’re playing a team like this, with the play action and so forth, you have to read your keys.”

As for Illinois, new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has his squad hitting hard and keeping opponents’ scoring to a minimum, something the Illini were not able to do so successfully in 2009. One big reason for that may be the return of linebacker Martez Wilson, who missed last season with an injury and is finally playing up to his potential this season as a junior.

Illinois has also benefited from strong play by safety Trulon Henry and linebacker Nate Bussey, who deflected, intercepted and returned a pass for a touchdown in the Illini’s 33-13 win against Penn State.

“Well, I think they’re athletic, they’ve been relatively healthy thus far,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “They have a new system. … I think (Koenning) revamped some things. I think they’re playing collectively better and I think they’re playing with enthusiasm. They’ve always been a talented football team, so you’ve got enthusiasm and talent, it equals aggressiveness, and you see that happening for them.”