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There's more than one way to approach a story. Today is no exception. Consideration of Michigan State, 6-0 and with an ailing head football coach, offers many options.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – This isn't the University of Michigan. It doesn't give rise to the same competitive emotions.
That cheer you heard from the UI campus Tuesday came when the College of Business, though well behind Penn's Wharton School and Northwestern's Kellogg Grad School, drew a Wall Street Journal rating of No. 14, one slot ahead of Michigan's Ross School.
Anywhere, any time Illinois bests Michigan in ANYTHING is a cause for celebration. And there's no statistic the UI enjoys to flaunt more than the UI's 22-3 advantage over Michigan in Nobel Prizes. Other than Notre Dame, no rival brings out the worst in Illinoisans more than Ann Arbor's so-called "Harvard of the Midwest."
Somehow, even though Michigan State has been in the Big Ten since 1953 (getting the vote over Illinois for the Rose Bowl berth that year), Illini-Spartan antagonism has never escalated. UI-Michigan State football games aren't memorable the way UI-Ohio State and UI-Michigan games are. It's just the nature of things.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Illini's improved defense must be ready for the unexpected at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, which will be a new experience.
Due to Ohio State turning conservative in Champaign, throwing infrequently and pulling in QB Terrelle Pryor after he strained a quad muscle, the 3-2 Illini haven't faced an opponent cooking on all the burners. Until now.
The Spartans have the Big Ten's Nos. 4 and 6 rushers in Edwin Baker (113.8 yards per game) and Le'Veon Bell (91.5), a 99-for-145 passer in Kirk Cousins, three veteran receivers sharing 63 catches, and two tight ends with 17 receptions. Kicker Dan Conroy is 9 for 9 on field goals, and punter Aaron Bates is second only to Big Ten leader Anthony Santella of Illinois.
"They have a complement for everything," UI defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said, "so I can't sit in there and scheme something, like maybe a couple of things we could do at Penn State against certain formations. We can't cheat. We have to be honest ... sound. They like to make calls you don't expect. And we've been vulnerable to things like that."
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State is 6-0 and rumbling toward a big bowl game.
But let's not turn the Spartans into a monster. They'll surely lose somewhere along the way, and Saturday is a possibility.
Remember, they trailed Notre Dame 28-21 before forcing overtime, and the fake field goal in OT was an act of brilliance. But if the pass had failed, Michigan State would have lost. Against Wisconsin, the Spartan lead was cut to 20-17 and 27-24 before, in both cases, Cousins capped clutch rallies with fourth-down TD passes. At Michigan, where a Spartan banner referred to Michigan sanctions by advising the Wolverines to "keep practicing," – they feel the same way about Michigan that Illini Nation does – they took advantage of a weak Wolverine defense that gave up similar numbers to UMass (37) and Indiana (35).
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mike White punished Muddy Waters in season openers, contributing greatly to the Michigan State coach's quick demise in the early '80s. And White's successor at Illinois, John Mackovic, split four tight duels against George Perles' Spartans.
But for the Illini, it hasn't been a pretty picture of late. Michigan State has won 10 of 11 meetings since 1995 and is a touchdown favorite in Saturday's homecoming. The lone win came during Juice Williams' freshman year when he directed a late drive to set up Jason Reda's winning field goal. It's been 25 years since Illinois defeated Michigan State by more than four points.
OK, enough of history, enough of Michigan comparisons, enough of my opinion. Let's listen to Coach Vic, drawl and all. He has taken an inept defense and, in five games, has them at No. 20 in the nation in yards allowed (304.8). They held Ohio State to a season-low of 290 and Penn State to 235. Now he faces a quandary in a multi-faceted Michigan State attack that exploded for 31 points in the middle quarters against Michigan on Saturday. The Spartans have leapfrogged major bumps in the road with eye-popping play calls, and they enter homecoming barely able to keep their 12-0 dream to a whisper.
"They're undefeated and have momentum. Compared to Penn State, the quarterback is much more experienced, and they have several more receivers who run faster. Those are the two main things."
Coach Vic, the Illini offense held the ball for 38 minutes at Penn State. How did this impact your substitution pattern, and can it continue?
Koenning: "Depth is obviously a concern. We've not been able to sub the way we want. We can't ask guys to play 60 and 70 plays. The offense helped us with ball control at Penn State. These things go hand in hand, and I'm appreciative of what they're doing. We only had 52 snaps on defense. The three-and-outs really help, and particularly when the offense grinds 'em for a while. I've had that done to me enough times that I understand it."
Coach Vic, can you expect the "A" game every week?
Koenning: "As a coach, you know you're going to run into a game where you're not electric, and somebody may put that humble pie in front of you. But so far we've been pretty steady. When you look at our group, and you see a lot of FR's and SO's in front of their names, and you look at Michigan State and you see JR's and SR's next to the quarterback and receivers, it's a concern. I know, for a combination of reasons, there's been too much transition and guys coming and going here. We just have to do the best we can to groom our guys and get them to hang in. It would be nice to have a bunch of juniors and seniors but we don't, so we'll do the best we can with the guys we've got."
Coach Vic, did it surprise you how well the Illini performed at Penn State?
Koenning: "I wouldn't have dreamed that would happen the way it did. Michigan State may be better. I hope they're not, but they might be. I don't think many times in life that you get to go into a place like Penn State and keep the crowd quiet for a majority of the game. It would be unrealistic to think we'll have that again this week. They averaged 30 points last year, and they're doing it again. Realistically, we'll do our best, get into the fourth quarter and let the chips fall."
Let the chips fall.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.