Marcus Jackson's take on Saturday's 42-3 loss to Michigan State:
— Step back from the ledge. Seriously. Let’s think back to July and August, when we were all trying to figure out what to expect from the Illini this season. Vegas set Illinois’ over/under for wins at 3.5. With five games remaining, the Illini are knocking on the door for four, and Purdue, Indiana and scuffling Northwestern are still on the schedule. Despite what you might be feeling right now, it’s not as bad as it could be — though Saturday was as ugly as it’s been the last two seasons. Stay focused, Illinois fans, your team still can make a run at a couple more wins.
— As bad as Illinois’ defense has been (104th in the nation), it’d be safe to assume it could at least hold its own against the less-than-stellar Michigan State offense (95th in the country in total offense and 106th in passing). But, Tim Banks’ unit continued to struggle. The Spartans, who didn’t get past the Purdue 32 until the fourth quarter last week, marched 99 yards for a touchdown just before the half. That’s an American football record, by the way. Even against the weaker teams the rest of the way, Nathan Scheelhaase & Co. are going to have to score in bunches.
— Is Connor Cook in line to receive Heisman votes? Maybe if he got to play the Illini every week. The sophomore quarterback connected on 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He showed off his nimble feet, too, picking up one of Michigan State’s oodles of third-down conversions with an 8-yard run.
— This seems so trivial now, but at one point, the outcome was in doubt. No kidding. Illinois had the ball at the 1 and tried to run it in twice but came up empty. The Illini have pretty good tight ends on the roster. Why not toss it to one of those big guys? Illinois couldn’t run the ball against the vaunted Spartans defense. The Illini racked up a grand total of 1 yard on the ground in the first half.
— Again, for that brief period when the game was still up for grabs, Illinois shot itself in the foot with costly mistakes. Alex Hill was called for holding, negating a touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to Jon Davis (one of those aforementioned tight ends) and freshman cornerback Jaylen Dunlap was called for a blatant pass-interference penalty on third down in the second quarter. In all, Illinois was flagged seven times for 66 yards. Guys, stop cheating.
— Understandably, when Michigan State went up 28-3 late in the third quarter, students who showed up for the game began funneling out of the stadium and likely toward a Campustown watering hole. Even more left at the end of the fourth quarter. When the deficit swelled to 42-3, a few dozen remained even as the temperature dipped into the 40s. My question is this: Why? What besides an unrivaled loyalty possessed you to stick around to watch this debacle? Go have college fun.
— Remember when Northwestern was 4-0 and ranked near the Top 15? Those days are long gone as Pat Fitzgerald’s group is playing like the lowly ’Cats of old. In losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, the Wildcats gave up an average of 28 points. We might get ourselves a real rivalry game between programs battling for supremacy in Chicago and nothing like that 50-14 butt-whipping Northwestern put on Illinois last season in Evanston.
— You think Nebraska wanted to pull a USC and fire Bo Pelini on the runway at the airport in Lincoln after the team returned from Saturday’s loss at Minnesota? Pelini has done himself no favors, getting into it with the Big Red fans and former great Tommie Frazier. They’ll tolerate losses to Ohio State and the like with that attitude, but when you start losing to Minnesota, you have problems. Changes might be looming within the Huskers’ program.
— With Ohio State looking solid in the Leaders Division, Michigan State is looking more and more like a good bet to come out of the Legends’ side for a clash in the Big Ten title game. The Spartans avoided the trap Saturday ahead of next week’s game against rival Michigan.
So you think Michigan State is a basketball school, huh? Not quite, says Joe Rexrode, who covers Michigan State football and basketball for the Detroit Free Press.
“Personally, I’ve always believed Michigan State was a football school even with a better-performing basketball program,” Rexrode said. “The community is really into football. There’s a lot of excitement about basketball, but the Michigan game is coming up, and it’s going to be all football.”
Though the Spartans are 7-1 after Saturday’s romp, there have been moments of unrest in East Lansing.
“Overall it was really panic city up there with the offense early, then it got better and people got excited, then last week (14 points at Purdue) happened,” Rexrode said. “It’s been a roller coaster.”
That being said, basketball still is generating its share of buzz on the banks of the Old Red Cedar.
“They haven’t been to the Final Four since 2010 and Tom Izzo’s been there with every four-year class, so this is a big year,” Rexrode said. “There’s a lot of excitement because they’re going to play Kentucky right away — 1 vs. 2 probably — and it doesn’t look like there’s that one super team out there. It looks like there are several teams who could win it this year. There’s a lot of optimism in the fan base and within the program. Tom Izzo is being kind of bold about some of the stuff he’s saying about this team.”
In the Stadium
— Former Illini great and first-round pick Corey Liuget participated in the “Three-in-One” with the students in the north end zone at halftime. The San Diego Chargers defensive tackle has the week off after last week’s win at Jacksonville.
— Illinois’ all-time leader in total offense, Juice Williams, took in the action Saturday, as did former running back Rocky Harvey.
— Cliff Alexander was the headline basketball visitor, but three other high-profile targets joined the Chicago Curie big man on the UI campus. St. Rita’s 2015 guard Charles Matthews was in attendance along with the Simeon duo of D.J. Williams (2015) and Zachary Norvell (2016).