College football beat writer Matt Daniels’ four keys for Illinois today against Michigan State.
1 Opposites attract. Bill Cubit loves offense. Pat Narduzzi loves defense. Both coordinators will match wits as Illinois’ 48th-ranked offense tries to solve stingy Michigan State.
Cubit will try to outsmart Narduzzi’s Spartans. The respect is already there from the Illinois offensive coordinator, who had to go against Narduzzi’s defense in the 2010 season opener when Cubit’s Western Michigan team lost 38-14 in East Lansing, Mich. The Broncos managed a respectable 323 yards of offense, but with the way Illinois’ defense has played this year, those same numbers likely won’t get Illinois a win. Add to the fact Michigan State is only giving up an average of 228 yards per game this season, tops in the country, and Cubit knows he might have his toughest challenge yet at Illinois. The Spartans are the only FBS defense to rank in the top five in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
“Pat does an unbelievable job,” Cubit said. “I think he’s really, really good. He’s got those kids playing at a high level. Schemewise, they’re really good. If he’s not one of the top defensive coordinators in the country, that list isn’t going to go long. He’s that good. I’ve got my work cut out.”
Illinois wide receiver Ryan Lankford agrees.
“They’re physical,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun game because of that physical aspect. They’ll be out there, in your face and talking trash, and you’ve got to embrace that.”
2 Opposites attract, part II. Tim Banks loves defense, too. Just hasn’t had much luck in stopping any team recently. The same feelings Illinois fans have for their defensive coordinator and his 104th-ranked defense are probably what Michigan State fans feel toward co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman.
Only difference is the Spartans are winning, which eases some concern about an offense ranked 95th in the country in total offense. Connor Cook has stabilized the quarterback position somewhat for the Spartans, who rely on running back Jeremy Langford to produce the way former Michigan State running backs like Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and Javon Ringer have done the last five seasons for the Spartans.
“They’re a pretty solid offense,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “They get knocked for not being that good, but they’ve got a talented (offensive) line and a stable of running backs, just like any other Big Ten team. It’s going to be a challenge.”
How Illinois’ defensive line contains the run, an area Illinois has failed to do in its three losses, will present itself front and center again today.
“We’re losing gap responsibilities,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We’re getting moved too far. We’ve got to stay in our gap controls. When we move or try to move our front, you’ve got to be right, because if you’re not, you’re really going to get washed. Again, it’s attacking and playing your gap control.”
3 Start time. Beckman enunciated each word clearly. “We’ve got to start fast,” he said. “That’s exactly what the tempo of this program will be from here on out.”
Easier said than done. Each week it seems this is a high priority for Illinois, especially after the first-quarter debacle against Wisconsin. Take out the first and third quarters, like Beckman mentioned earlier this week, and Illinois beats the Badgers. Except all four quarters count. Having the same type of play-making ability and execution has evaded Illinois so far in the Big Ten season. Today’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff is the first one of the season for Illinois. Possibly the last one, too. If Illinois keeps losing, expect a whole lot of 11 a.m. kickoffs in November. A key for Illinois to have at least one more possible Saturday afternoon game — and a meaningful one at that — relies on Illinois not getting outplayed in the first and third quarters.
“Defensively, getting a three-and-out on the first drive is important in setting the tone for the rest of the game,” Brown said. “Lately, every time (the opponent) has the ball, they’ve gone down there, punched us in the mouth and scored. We’ve really got to find a way to get off the field.”
4 Staying poised. One encouraging aspect Illinois has exhibited is a tendency to not get blown out. Yes, it might be a stretch. And some fans probably felt it was a rout after the losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“I don’t think there’s a sense of panic,” Lankford said. “I know there’s definitely a sense of disappointment. Coach Beckman has said, ‘We shouldn’t be down. We’re 3-3.’ At the same time, from an offensive standpoint, we know what we’ve done these past few weeks is not who we are. Yeah, we’ve put so many points up on the board, but we know we can put up so much more and need to capitalize on every opportunity.”
When the losses pile up, the players themselves are often their toughest critics. Not coming unglued if Michigan State goes up by a touchdown or two today is an area to keep track of against the Spartans.
“I think we’re doing better (with that),” right tackle Corey Lewis said. “A lot better than last year. Obviously, we’re not executing every time we need to, and that’s where we’re getting hurt. If you watch, we keep fighting. It’s not like we’re giving up at any time. Guys are now starting to believe that we can win these games. Coming off a 2-10 season, it’s very easy to go the other way of ‘Here we go again,’ instead of thinking, ‘We can go get this.’ ”