CHAMPAIGN — Ryan Lankford is likely out for the season with a shoulder injury, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Saturday.
Beckman said the senior wide receiver injured his shoulder on the double- reverse call that resulted in a first-half fumble for the Illini.
“We’re not for sure right now, but to be honest with you, after seeing it, he’s probably gone for the year,” Beckman said. “I think that will be a big loss. He’s one of our true deep threats. I know how Ryan is, and I know what Ryan’s beliefs are for this football team. He’ll have to lead us now by not playing. He’ll still be getting the guys ready, but of course it’ll be tough any time you lose a starter like that.”
Expect more playing time for Justin Hardee with Lankford — who has 308 receiving yards on 15 catches this season — sidelined.
“The next guy’s got to go in,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “The issue we’ve got is we’ve got to probably run the ball a lot better now, and you’ve got to get those tight ends involved a lot more. It’s a concern because he was a speed guy for us. That’s what he did for us really well.”
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Steve Hull was dressed Saturday, but Beckman didn’t want to play the wide receiver unless an emergency situation happened.
The senior suffered a head injury against Wisconsin and was limited in practice this week for Beckman to not feel comfortable playing him.
“Steve makes a lot of plays for us,” UI quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “Obviously you want to be cautious with someone and learn more about their health, but I think we’ll have him back for next week. It’ll be very important to have him back.”
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Jaylen Dunlap made the first play on the ball. Then Eaton Spence had an opportunity.
Both Illinois cornerbacks came agonizingly close to intercepting Connor Cook’s deep sideline pass on third and 25.
But the Michigan State quarterback ended up with an improbable 29-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bennie Fowler, who corralled the bobbling ball and fell backward into the end zone late in the first half to give Michigan State a 14-3 lead.
“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Dunlap said. “I guarded him well (and) made the quarterback look off of him. It looked like he was trying to go to him at first, but I stopped that. Then (Cook) went into scrambling, (Fowler) broke out of his route and started heading upfield. It’s just a play that I have to finish. I feel like big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and I want to be a big player and make that big play.”
Dunlap had a hard time believing that he didn’t come up with the interception and that Fowler caught the ball.
“It was definitely a lucky play,” he said. “It had nothing to do with skill or talent. The luck fell on his behalf, that’s what I think.”
“It was a bad feeling, but as a corner, you’ve got to play the next play and forget about that,” he said. “We’re young back there. Just getting experience is the main thing.”
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Getting more pressure on the quarterback has become a point of emphasis the whole season for Illinois. Illinois did just that on two straight plays late in the first half, with Austin Teitsma and Jonathan Brown combining on a sack of Cook before Houston Bates rolled into Cook for a sack on the next play.
“We had a pressure call on our dime package, and as soon as I saw the tackle slide away, I knew the back was going to cut, so I kind of tried to hurdle him a little bit,” Bates said. “He clipped my leg, and I looked up and the quarterback was right above me, so I just tried to calf-wrangle him down.”
Of course, those sacks were for naught when, on the next play, Cook completed his unlikely TD to Fowler.
“We get sacks, people in the stadium get loud,” Brown said. “It was a big swing, but we were only down 14-3.”
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The first-quarter difficulties didn’t surface for Illinois like they have in the past two games.
The third-quarter struggles, however, emerged. Illinois is now only getting outscored 35-3 in the first quarter in Big Ten play after holding a 3-0 lead against the Spartans on Saturday. In the third quarter, Big Ten teams are outscoring the Illini 41-7 after Michigan State expanded its 14-3 halftime lead to 28-3 by the time the fourth quarter arrived.
“Where we’ve got to get better at is coming out of halftime,” Brown said. “We’re allowing people to come down and score, and that just can’t happen. They didn’t come out and get a jump on us like in games past. We just didn’t execute. I feel like I’m a broken record saying that every week.”
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Alex Hill didn’t place blame on anyone but himself.
The Illinois center took the full burden for the holding call he committed that wiped away a 13-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to Jon Davis. The score would have given Illinois a possible 7-0 lead early, but Illinois had to settle for a 31-yard field goal with Taylor Zalewski on its first drive of the game that accounted for the only points Illinois scored.
“I thought the guy was going down, and I just tried to kind of lay out and jump on top of him,” Hill said. “I missed. It was one of those things where it’s just a mistake I made. I take full responsibility. I understand why they called it.”
Hill said the missed opportunity to score a touchdown hurt.
“Three points is great, but a touchdown would have been better,” Hill said. “I know that was something that probably shot our momentum a little bit.”
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Two straight runs from the Michigan State 1-yard line.
Two straight runs that kept Illinois a yard from a possible game-changing touchdown. Those two plays resulted in a turnover on downs by the Illini when Josh Ferguson and Davis were stopped for no gain midway through the second quarter.
“I think if I run it 10 times, I’d say nine times I’m getting in the end zone,” Davis said. “I felt like we had a lot of stuff going the first half and them off balance. All our different personnels were working. It just didn’t carry over to the second half.”
Cubit said the plan on those two plays was to run the ball.
“It was so close that you sit there and go, ‘OK , you’ve got two shots. Just go after it,’ ” Cubit said. “You didn’t want to take a chance on any bootlegs or anything like that because of a sack. We didn’t get movement.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Michigan State’s defense “built a wall” on the run by Davis.
“Our goal-line defense had great penetration,” he said. “Somebody must have topped it off. It was a huge play of the game.”
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Donovonn Young wasn’t hurt, but the running back didn’t get in on any of the 42 offensive plays Illinois ran.
It was the first time Young didn’t carry the ball in a game since Illinois lost 31-14 at home to Michigan on Nov. 12, 2011, during Young’s freshman season.
Beckman said it was a combination of the Illinois game plan and the fact Illinois fell behind for Young’s diminished role Saturday.
“We didn’t really have much opportunities,” Cubit said. “I thought the one drive we had to get down there, we were playing hurry-up and throwing it. We looked pretty good there. I thought it was going to be really hard to run the ball against those guys there. I was hoping to tire them down, and we weren’t good enough to tire them down.”
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With V’Angelo Bentley (left ankle) on the sidelines in navy blue sweats and his orange jersey, three true freshmen were on the field for most of Saturday’s game.
Dunlap, Darius Mosely and Caleb Day — who wore No. 16 after wearing No. 7 in the first six games — all saw extensive playing time in the secondary.
“We made some silly mistakes at the corner position just watching those corners play,” Beckman said. “They’re young, and they’ve got to have this experience. They played like freshmen a little bit. They gave up some little things that we’ve got to get better at doing.”
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Illinois’ offense didn’t do much after the first quarter. The Spartans lived up to their billing of the top defense in the country and added to their reputation in stifling the Illini, who only managed a season-low 128 yards of total offense. The previous season-low in that category came when Illinois accumulated 327 yards of total offense in its loss against Washington at Soldier Field.
“They’re good,” Cubit said of Michigan State’s defense. “They’re really good. You knew that going in. In this college game, when they have six seniors on that defense, they know how to fit those things so the creases aren’t vulnerable like you have when you’ve got younger guys. They do an outstanding job of playing defense.”
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Brown didn’t shy away from his description in what it was like seeing Michigan State convert 14 of 16 third-down opportunities. Conversely, Illinois was 3 of 10 on third-down plays, which helped the Spartans’ offense to have the ball for 39:06 compared to 20:54 for Illinois.
“It kills a defense,” said Brown, who finished with 10 tackles for his fourth double-digit tackling effort of the season. “If you can’t get off the field on third-downs, that’s when they put 15- and 18-play drives together.”