Spartans take down Illini with newfound efficiency

MSU took down #14 Illinois 23-15 last Saturday and the Spartans kept alive their modest Bowl hopes.

In fact, the Spartans overcame the elements on a windy day in Champaign, in front of a hostile crowd and one of the largest crowds in recent Illinois football history and in so doing, the Spartans demonstrated they were not intimidated by Illinois #14 national ranking or its designation as a 16.5-point favorite.

Prior to the game, Illinois boasted a six-game winning streak supported by the #1 ranked Defense in the land yielding a meager 244 Yards and 23 PPG overall, or just 12 PPG vs Big Ten opponents.

And while the Spartans Offense was less than prolific at Illinois given the fact it managed just 294 Yards of Total Offense, yet the Spartans managed to score on 4 out of 5 trips into the Red Zone (80%) and that made it nearly impossible for Illinois and its low scoring Offense to overcome.

It’s also worth noting that prior to playing Illini, the Spartans had converted a dismal 5 of 10 Red Zone opportunities (50%) which was amongst the worst in Big Ten competition, so converting 4 of 5 at Illinois was a huge improvement in efficiency and thereby instrumental in posting the victory.

Of course, the Spartans only scored 23 points at Illinois, yet it was 7 points more than their meager Big Ten average which was just 16 PPG, so on a windy, low scoring afternoon, 23 points was enough.


Defense stepped up

The Spartan’s Defense is still a long, long way from “lock down” efficiency and that was underscored by the fact it yielded 441 Yards of Total Offense to Illinois and yielding more than 400 yards of offense will usually result in a loss on most Saturday’s.

Yet the Spartans Defense limited Illinois to just 1 of 4 Red Zone conversions (25%) and just 1 of 4, 4th Down conversions (25%) and that translated to Illinois scoring just 15 points.

So stopping Illinois in the Red Zone was exceedingly impressive because prior to the game the Illini had converted an impressive 19 of 22 Red Zone opportunities (86%), and 8 of 13, 4th Down conversions (62%) so the Defense stepped up when it was needed and here is an example.

To begin the game the Offense problematically threw an “Interception” on the very first play of the game which could have been disastrous given the fact Illinois took possession at MSU 41 and that was before fans were even settled into their seats, yet the Defense stepped up.

Here is how it played out…

After the interception, the Illini moved with efficiency, advancing to MSU 10-yard line in just 5 plays and it looked like the Spartans were in danger of yielding an early and ominous score.

Then Illini completed a 7-yard pass and the football rested precariously 1st & goal at the MSU 3-yard line.

Yet, after 3 unsuccessful rushing attempts including 2 rushing attempts by Chase Brown who is arguably one of the most dynamic and productive running backs in the land, averaging more than 150 YPG at 5 Yards per attempt, the football rested 4th & goal at MSU 2 so the Illini were off schedule.

Then the Illini attempted a pass to Isaiah Williams, but it was incomplete and the Spartans took over on downs and avoided early disaster.

Nevertheless, Illinois is a well coached unit and scored on their next possession.

Yet in turn, the Spartans answered and kicked a FG near the end of the 1st Qtr, and then scored a Touchdown at about the 10:00 min mark of the 2nd Qtr, and on a blustery, low scoring afternoon, the Spartans took a slim 9-7 lead into Halftime despite missing what could have been a critical XP

The Spartans scored 14 more points in the 3rd Qtr, and took a 23-7 lead into the 4th Qtr, so unbeknownst to everyone, the game was essentially over at the start of the 4th Qtr, of course there was still plenty of drama late in the 4h Qtr due to head scratching game management, yet the Spartans managed to hang on to post a “W”.

Fortunately, the Interception at the start of the game was the Spartans one and only Turnover on the day, so they weren’t beating themselves which has been a problematic Hallmark of Spartan Football in 5 previous losses.


Is it sustainable?

The Spartans were resilient and efficient at Illinois: they played with high energy and took advantage of opportunities such as converting 4 of 5 trips into the Red Zone.

But is it sustainable?

We have to ask, where was the inspiration, energy, efficiency and resiliency in games against Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland whereby the losing differential was an incredible 52 points, yet each of those games was winnable.

Sadly, those losses came as a result of blown scoring opportunities, drive sapping penalties, and head scratching play calling.

Yet, think of the difference if the Spartans had beaten Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland? Their record would be a solid 7-2 in lieu of a miserable 4-5 and a highly regarded Bowl game would still be a possibility.

By any measure, there should be no more excuses, because the victory vs Illinois told us the Spartans have enough talent and “depth of talent” to compete with most teams in the Big Ten with the exception of Ohio State, Michigan and possibly Penn State.

Yet in order to win in the Big Ten, a team must compete in each game with energy, intelligence and efficiency for every second, of every play until the clock ticks Zero, yet that intensity amongst players and coaches has not always been in abundant supply for Spartan Football this season.

Nevertheless, we should ask: is the victory at Illinois sustainable and is it a harbinger of better football to come?


At the bottom line:

Let’s make note, Illinois did almost everything needed to hang a “W” by way of compiling 441 Yards of total offense which was nearly 150 Yards more than the Spartans.

In addition, the Illini limited the Spartans to just 23 points, yet the Spartans played with inspiration, high energy, and enough resiliency to overcome adversity.

But, can the Spartans sustain its newfound success and beat Rutgers and Indiana at home?

Of course, a lot of  Spartan fans think I have been overly critical of Spartan Football and consequently a lot of fans don’t like my messaging, and I understand because everyone loves their team, but I just call “balls & strikes”.

After all, I don’t win or lose football games, or commit drive sapping penalties, or mismanage the clock, or make head scratching play calls (play calls like those at the end of the Illinois game that could have been disastrous and clutched a loss from the jaws of victory), so shoot the messenger (me) if it’s convenient, but maybe it makes more sense to ask the Spartan coaching staff how they intend to correct course and win more football games?

At the bottom line, I hope Spartan fans agree, there is no dignity by measuring football success at the bottom tier of the Big Ten and or by competing for the lowest tier bowl games so, better coaching, better football and a better record, would make it better for all.

Thank you for reading and I always welcome your comments and opinions.