Daily Illini Sports Podcast, Michigan State beat writer points to lackluster Spartan running game making the difference in Saturday’s match

Sixth-year+senior+quarterback+Tommy+DeVito+%283%29+passes+the+ball+to+junior+running+back+Chase+Brown+%282%29+during+the+Homecoming+game+against+Minnesota+on+Oct.+15.+

Sydney Laput

Sixth-year senior quarterback Tommy DeVito (3) passes the ball to junior running back Chase Brown (2) during the Homecoming game against Minnesota on Oct. 15.

Illini, Chase Brown look to run over depleted Michigan State defense

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The Michigan State Spartans came into the preseason ranked at the 15th spot. Illinois came into the season unranked. But the roles have flipped, and so has the betting line. 

Behind Chase Brown and a No. 16 ranking in the College Football Playoff provided by the committee, the Illini are 17-point home favorites over the Spartans, who had New Year’s Six aspirations coming into the year. 

Last week, after a 29-7 loss to rival Michigan, eight Spartan players were involved in a post-game altercation, resulting in those individuals being suspended from the team. 

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    The losses will likely impact Michigan State’s defensive performance, as defensive end Jacoby Whitman, who is the nation’s leader in forced fumbles and has recorded 5.5 sacks, will be out for the game. 

    The State News’ Michigan State football beat writer, Alex Faber, met with The Daily Illini on-air team to discuss how the Spartans will perform against Bret Bielema and Co. 

    Running game has handcuffed the offense 

    “Mel Tucker at almost every conference refuses to blame scheming or personnel. What he’ll say is, it is a lack of execution. But I tend to believe that it’s more offensive line and a bit of play calling to Jay Johnson’s play calling this year. 

    “The run game is just he tries to establish it just at the oddest times. They just haven’t got the push out of the offensive line that you would have expected. Last year, the offensive line wasn’t anything special, but Kenneth Walker kind of overcame those issues. 

    “And Jalen Berger is a fine running back, but I don’t think he’s good enough to overcome those issues. So I think it’s a combination of scheming and just specifically offensive line personnel.”

    Analysis:

    Michigan State only averages 97 yards rushing a game, a shocking statistic considering that the offense relied heavily on Kenneth Walker III’s 1,600 yards last season. The lack of rushing has resulted in the play-action passing being limited and has put immense pressure on Peyton Throne to carry the offense alone. 

    If Throne isn’t consistently hitting the quick passes to move the chains, the Spartan defense will be on the field a lot, giving Chase Brown and the offense line the ability to eat the clock. 

    Michigan State’s 2021 season created unrealistic expectations 

    “(Last season’s 11-2 finish made) people forget just how bad Dantonio was at the end. Dantonio’s recruiting classes were terrible. He refused to change personnel or the coaching staff.

    “So I think last year’s 11-2 record kind of set expectations a little too high. We need to remember where Dantonio left the program at the end, it was not in a good spot. One good season doesn’t erase years of bad recruiting and years of stagnant just being stagnant as a program.

    “I think last year was a bit of a mirage.”

    Analysis 

    Michigan State has benefited heavily from the transfer portal in the past two years after Mark Dantonio left the program with bottom-ranked recruiting classes. While the Spartans are struggling this season, its next two recruiting classes ranked in the top quarter of the conference. 

    Mel Tucker has been stubborn at times regarding his coaching staff, although he should maybe take a page out of Bielema’s book. Bielema fired offensive coordinator Tony Petersen after just one season to replace him with Barry Lunney Jr., and the offense improved dramatically. 

    The Spartans finished with the worst pass defense in the nation last season, but Scottie Hazleton and the coaching staff remained intact. Washington, Minnesota, Ohio State and Maryland all had field days on that secondary.

    Michigan State’s pass catchers a bright spot 

    “Keon Coleman has been kind of a breakout star. He was electric this year, he had a couple of incredible catches against Michigan last week. So he’s been really just incredible. You can see the chemistry developing between him and Thorne.

    “But it is surprising that (Jayden Reed) hasn’t been the focal point of the offense. I mean, last year we saw multiple times like against Michigan and against Pitt in the bowl game — when push comes to shove, they’re going to put the ball in Reed’s hand when they get in trouble and we just haven’t seen that season. 

    “I honestly couldn’t answer why (Reed hasn’t been used more). He’s one of the best players on this team, and he’s going to be an NFL guy.”

    Analysis: 

    Coleman finished with 155 yards on five catches against the Wolverines, but was bottled up after the first half. Michigan State has shown the ability to have a lethal air attack if Throne is protected in the pocket. Coleman’s athleticism has the ability to test the Illini secondary, which looked human at times against Nebraska. 

    Casey Thompson was able to connect with his past catchers for 170 yards on only nine completions, but he missed a majority of the game after suffering a hand injury. 

    Michigan State will be one of the toughest air attacks the Illini will have faced yet this season, and if the defensive front can’t force consistent pressure on Throne, expect the Naperville Central product to cause some headaches for Ryan Walters’ defense. 

    Against Indiana, the Illini surrounded 330 yards — although the Hoosiers were shut down for most of the 2nd half once the defensive line forced consistent pressure on Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak.   

    Illini transfer Daniel Barker hasn’t been utilized 

    “Jay Johnson, in one of his conferences earlier in the season, said he likes to make tight ends a focal point at the offense. And that’s just something we haven’t seen this year. Daniel Barker is a really talented guy and (so is) Maliq Carr, and they just have not gotten a lot of targets for whatever reason. 

    “And when they do (get targeted) they’re good (at pass catching). It’s not like (they tried to create) some schemes and get the ball in their hands and they’re not performing. I mean, Malik Carr, when he gets yards after catch. And Daniel Barker (caught an) incredible one handed catch against Western Michigan,

    “And they’re a pretty underutilized part of this offense. And again, that’s just another coaching decision where I can’t really explain why they aren’t being used more.”

    Analysis:

    It’s just so ironic that Barker left the Illini for perceived greener pastures. Barker now plays for a 3-5 football team and his hope to be more utilized in East Lansing, Michigan, has not materialized. 

    Barker currently only has 14 receptions on the season and has registered only a single touchdown. Given Luke Ford’s struggles in the passing game, Illinois could have benefited greatly from Barker’s presence in the passing game. 

    Stopping Chase Brown will be difficult 

    “I don’t trust them to do it. 

    “Against Wisconsin, they didn’t run (the same) defensive scheme against Michigan, which is weird because they’re run first. 

    “They (placed three linebackers in the box instead of the usual two) against Wisconsin to try and bottle up that run. And overall, I thought they did an OK job defensively, but Braylon Allen still had over 150 yards, I believe. Blake Corum had a good game against MSU (after the Spartans elected) to play with two linebackers. 

    “I just don’t see how they can stop Chase Brown this year they’re gonna have to try and stack the box like they did against Wisconsin and try to get that extra linebacker that in there. That’s the only way you’re gonna stop and and even then, with eight players gone, I just don’t see how they do it.

    Analysis:

    While Allen finished with 123 yards rushing, he was held to around four-yards a carry. If you take out Allen’s one rush for 34 yards, he finished with 89 yards on 28 carries. Preventing Allen from consistently gashing them put Graham Mertz in a position to have to win the game with his arm. The Spartans upset the Badgers 34-28 in double overtime, and Mertz finished with only 131 yards. 

    However, even if the Spartans stack the box against Brown, Illini quarterback Tommy DeVito has been playing at a high level and could expose the Spartan secondary — just like what Tanner Morgan of Minnesota did to Sparty. 

    Faber predicts an Illini victory 

    “Illinois is going to grind this game out. I think you’re going to look at time of possession, and it’s going to be comical. I think it’s going to be like Illinois, 42 minutes or something, just something that if you’re a Michigan State fan, it’s just going to make you sick.

    “I think Michigan State’s offense might have some explosive moments, I think they probably put up like 13 or 14 points. I think they get to double digits just because of a few explosive plays. But overall, I’m just not confident about the ability of this team to go into a hostile environment against a good team that plays (a smashmouth scheme) that we can’t stop.

    “Before the season, I would have been pretty confident in Michigan State (winning like 27-10). but I mean Bielema has the program rolling right now, so (that) definitely, definitely shifted my opinion of it.”

    Analysis: 

    Illinois is literally cut from the same cloth as Michigan. 

    Strong running game. Stop the run. Limit penalties and turnovers — as of late. Quarterback who makes good decisions. It’s boring, but when you play a team who has inferior play at the offensive and defensive line, that’s all you need. 

    However, the one thing about the Spartans that should scare the Illini is the passing attack. Peyton Throne has taken a step back compared to last season, but Coleman and Reed are two of the top wideouts the Illini have faced. 

    Sure, they held Nebraska’s Trey Palmer to a one-yard and one reception, but the Huskers’ were gashing the secondary prior to Thompson’s hand injury. Indiana threw for over 330 yards on the Illini. 

    If the Illini defensive front can consistently provide pressure on Throne, then the Illini could hold the Spartans to less than ten points. But Michigan State, while not great, has performed well enough this season to not let Throne be sacked too often. 

    I think the Spartans will register some big plays through the air and score some points. The only way the Spartans win is if the game is turned into a shootout. 

    However, no one on Michigan State is stopping Chase Brown, and DeVito has proven to fans that he will make good decisions on a weekly basis and avoid the dreaded turnover. The Illini will eat the clock, keep Coleman and Reed off the field, and walk away with a closer-than-expected victory. 

    Illinois 24, Michigan State 17

     

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