Beat writer Matt Daniels takes a look at three players from each team who could have a big impact on Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, QB
Scheelhaase should pass Kurt Kittner for second place all time on the total offense list at Illinois with a solid game Saturday. He enters with 8,697 yards, trailing the Illinois radio analyst by 183 yards. He could catch Tony Eason, too, on the Illinois list for career passing yards. He sits at 6,842 yards, needing 190 to surpass Eason (7,031). He has had nothing but solid games in Champaign this season, continuing the trend last Saturday night against Wisconsin.
The big question regarding Scheelhaase entering the season was his arm strength, but he showed nice touch and a good deep ball on several plays against the Badgers. He’ll need to produce once again against the Spartans if Illinois is to have any sort of chance. Ultimately, though, moving past former Illinois quarterbacks on Saturday won’t mean much short term if he can’t help Illinois end its 16-game Big Ten losing streak.
“I’ve been very impressed just for the simple fact of the rough season he had last year,” right tackle Corey Lewis said. “I was very happy to see him bounce back. He’s been a great quarterback for this university. A lot of people forget about those times, but Nate knows it comes with the position. You take the blame and the punches, and just like when we’re doing well, you get all the fame. I’m just happy to see him successful this year.”
STEVE HULL, WR
After not making himself known against Nebraska other than a hard hit he took on a pass across the middle, the fifth-year senior showed up against Wisconsin. He is eighth in the country in yards per reception at 21.6, which benefited from deep passes he has hauled in at Memorial Stadium. Hull missed a few plays against Wisconsin after he was hit in the back of the head, but he should see the field plenty against a physical Michigan State secondary.
Hull and Scheelhaase have carried over the same rapport they have off the field onto the field, at least in Champaign. All of Hull’s 13 catches for 281 yards have come at home. Hull is a big-play threat, and his emergence against Wisconsin makes one think the former safety should have switched to offense earlier.
“It’s good when any guy has a great game,” receiver Ryan Lankford said. “I’m definitely a team player and always down for my guy getting off, as we like to say. Whenever Steve or anyone can get off and do what’s necessary, it’s great.”
RYAN LANKFORD, WR
Going up against the nation’s top rushing defense doesn’t seem like it will bode well for Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Cubit was hesitant in getting the ground game established against a Wisconsin defense that pales in comparison to what the Spartans have. Hence, that’s why Lankford must have a solid game.
Cubit might try more throws to tight ends Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse and Evan Wilson, but to get that group going, the wide receivers have to produce. Much was expected prior to the season of Lankford assuming the go-to receiver role Cubit always has had in his offenses. The Florida speedster has shown glimpses of that this season but not consistently enough.
Lankford might have to pick up yards in the kickoff return game, too. The Illinois special teams took a hit when V’Angelo Bentley and Miles Osei went down against the Badgers. Lankford is a possibility to return kickoffs, along with Darius Mosely, Martize Barr and Caleb Day.
“I’m confident in everyone that’s in that position,” said Lankford, who struggled in punt returns in 2011 but averaged 37 yards per kickoff return last year. “It’ll just be another role I have to step up to the challenge and accept.”
MAX BULLOUGH, LB
He’s the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. A three-year starter for the Spartans whose family lineage to Michigan State is a talking point during almost every broadcast, Bullough is the unquestioned leader of the Spartans’ defense.
Bullough recorded 10 tackles against Purdue, including two for loss and a sack, and forced the fumble Denicos Allen returned 45 yards for a touchdown. His 42 tackles are third on the Spartans’ defense, and with his consistent play nearly every week, it’s a virtual lock Bullough will earn his third consecutive All-Big Ten honor after this season.
His numbers might not stack up among the best defenders in the Big Ten by season’s end, but he is the player who keeps it all together for the Spartans.
SHILIQUE CALHOUN, DE
He leads Michigan State in sacks with four. But that’s not his most impressive number. He has three touchdowns. That’s right. The New Jersey native doesn’t have a patented touchdown celebration (he would get flagged 15 yards and make Mark Dantonio unhappy if he did), but the charismatic Calhoun is in position to find his name on possible All-America teams if his play continues on the upward trend.
He’s a big reason the Spartans didn’t fall as an upset victim to South Florida on Sept. 7, returning a fumble 4 yards for a touchdown and an interception 56 yards for a touchdown in the Spartans’ 21-6 win against the Bulls. No defender has had a pick-six or a scoop and score against the Illini this season, but if there’s a likely candidate from Pat Narduzzi’s defense Saturday, Calhoun fits the description.
“He achieves a lot (and is) a playmaker,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “All in all, they’ve got a lot of guys back on defense, and they’re making plays and scoring touchdowns. Coach Narduzzi does a good job with that group. They’re playing extremely well right now.”
DARQUEZE DENNARD, CB
Scheelhaase will want to stay away from the Georgia native. Dennard has a good chance to walk across the stage in New York City and exchange a man hug with Roger Goodell in late April. He has lockdown coverage skills, allowing Narduzzi to leave Dennard in man coverage against receivers.
Dennard has two interceptions this season, both against Iowa in a game in which he also compiled a game-high eight tackles. With Illinois likely to throw the ball probably double the amount of times it attempts a run Saturday, Dennard and fellow cornerback Trae Waynes have to like their chances of increasing their interception totals.
“They really rely on having some great corners who can go up there and play man-to-man against receivers,” Scheelhaase said. “That’s what they’re going to do. They’re really athletic guys that play the ball well and are aggressive. It’ll be a great test for our receivers.”