EAST LANSING, Mich. — Hard to find a college football stadium, in the Big Ten or across the country, that Lovie Smith hasn’t visited.
When the Illinois coach walks into Spartan Stadium to face Michigan State, it will be his first time in the building that seats 75,005.
“I have never been in the stadium,” Smith said. “It’s only one I can think of that I haven’t.
“The football part of me, the historian part of me, I’m excited about that.”
Spartan Stadium was the college home of Bubba Smith and Kirk Gibson, among other legendary names.
“It’s an established program,” Smith said. “A lot of history with it.
“One of the first to have black players. That part of it is pretty unique.”
Of course, Illinois hasn’t played there much, either. Saturday’s game is just the fifth in the past 20 seasons and the first since 2010.
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Illinois is looking for its first Big Ten road win streak since Ron Zook’s 2007 team won at Minnesota and Ohio State.
In their last road game, the Illini dominated Purdue 24-6 on Oct. 26.
“I think confidence-wise, it helps when you win games,” Smith said. “It helps your mindset, the mental part of it. But we won last time because we took care of business. We did what we are supposed to do. It’s not a continuation of that game. We have to start it over again, and that’s what we’re planning on doing.”
The current team has two road wins this season, beating UConn in the second game.
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Washington transfer linebacker Milo Eifler is coming off his most consistent game of the season. He had 10 tackles against Rutgers.
“We’ve been waiting for that,” Smith said. “He’s talented, and he’s had a couple big hits. We wanted to see consistent ball. Hopefully, that’s what we’re going to see from here on.”
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Unlike the head coach, Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith has been to Spartan Stadium before. Twice.
The first time came in 2009, while on the staff at Michigan. The Wolverines lost 26-20 in overtime.
The most recent trip came in 2011, when he was co-offensive coordinator at Indiana. That day didn’t go well for the Hoosiers, who lost 55-3.
“It’s a tremendously tough environment to play in,” Rod Smith said. “Great atmosphere.”
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After getting limited playing time his first two years, Illini defensive lineman Ayo Shogbonyo has a career-high 28 tackles. Including 8 1 / 2 for loss.
“It feels good,” he said. “I worked harder in the offseason. Now, I’m playing at the highest level.”
Winning makes it better.
“The defense has been clicking,” Shogbonyo said. “All three phases are doing great.”
What helped pull it together?
“Hard work and consistency,” Shogbonyo said. “We’ve been paying attention to the little things.”
He is making his first trip to Michigan State.
“I’m excited,” Shogbonyo said. “It’s just playing ball in a different spot.”Linebacker Dele Harding is making his first trip to Spartan Stadium with the Illini. But he went there during his junior year in high school for a 7-on-7 competition.
“It really doesn’t matter if we’re on the road,” Harding said. “I just like playing football.”
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The Illini travel party arrived in East Lansing, Mich., at 5 p.m. Friday and went directly to team headquarters, the Radisson Hotel Lansing. Illinois has a 5-mile drive Saturday to Spartan Stadium.
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Michigan State’s schedule has been a combination of difficult (ranked the second-toughest by one service) and odd.
The Spartans are coming off a span during which they were idle twice in a three-week stretch. Before that, the Spartans faced three top-10 teams in a row: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. They got outscored 100-17 in those games.
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The Michigan State roster has a strong Illinois presence, with 12 players hailing from the Land of Lincoln.
The best of bunch are Mike Panasiuk (Roselle) and Raequan Williams (Chicago), who have started 37 games in a row on the defensive line.
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The Spartans will play for the first time Saturday without star linebacker Joe Bachie, who was suspended by the Big Ten on Oct. 31 for a failed drug test.
During his weekly press conference, Michigan state coach Mark Dantonio said Bachie remains a part of the team.
“(He) wants to be involved with us,” Dantonio said. “Planning to be at the game Saturday, as well, but he’s just ineligible to play now as we go through this. But we want to keep him a part of our process. I think that’s what we want to do, and I think that’s what he would like to do, as well.”
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The last time the Illini played Michigan State, in 2016, they beat the Spartans 31-27 during Smith’s first season.
Dantonio likes what he sees from the current Illinois team.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Lovie Smith and what he’s been able to accomplish,” Dantonio said. “This year, I think they are playing exciting football. I think they are motivated. They have an opportunity to earn six wins as they come here.”
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Why is Illinois winning more this season? Dantonio’s got an easy answer.
“Turnovers,” he said. “I think turnovers give you a chance to even up the playing field. You know, when you’re plus-three turnovers against Wisconsin, all of a sudden the game gets a little tight and then they start to believe in themselves. I think they’ve done a nice job since then of capitalizing on that, building it in the Purdue game and obviously Rutgers this past week.”
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On Friday, Michigan State had meetings in the afternoon, then a walkthrough on its practice fields. The team spent the night at the on-campus Kellogg Center. Two hours, 15 minutes before kickoff Saturday, the Spartans walk a half-mile from the Kellogg Center to the stadium.