Summer optimism becomes a stark November reality

Instead of competing for a Big Ten title and seeking an invitation to the College Football Playoffs, the Spartans are seeking to simply become Bowl eligible.

There are just 4 regular season games remaining including Illinois, @Michigan, @Rutgers and Maryland, but first up is Illinois. The Spartans are a 14.5 point favorite to beat Illinois at Spartan Stadium on Saturday but inspiration, momentum and motivation seemingly favor the Illini, and here are a few factoids:

  • Illinois is celebrating a 3 game winning streak, their first 3 game winning streak since 2011, while the Spartans are suffering a 3 game losing streak for the first time since 2016.
  • Illinois posted a signature 24-23 victory vs Wisconsin…while the Spartans got beaten down at Wisconsin 38-0.
  • Illinois can clinch Bowl eligibility with a victory on Saturday for the first time since 2014, while the Spartans must win 2 of 4 remaining games to simply become Bowl eligible.

By all measures, Illinois is trending up, while the Spartans are trending down.

Illinois has a record of 5-4 overall which is their best record since 2015, while the Spartans have a middling record of 4-4 overall, and it would be fair to say the Spartans are a shell of the team that earned an invitation to the College Football Playoff in 2015.

The last 3 games provide some insight:

In the last 3 games, Illinois has played and beaten Wisconsin, Purdue and Rutgers in that order, while the Spartans have played and lost to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State.

Yet the Spartans were not competitive in those 3 losses, losing by an average score of 33 to 6. Moreover, in those 3 losses, the Spartans Defense yielded an average of 411 Yards per game, while the Spartans Offense averaged just 233 Yards. So, the Spartans Defense yielded nearly 180 Yards more per game than the Spartans Offense produced.

And, if you want to measure Rushing Yardage in those 3 losses which is a basic measurement as it relates to controlling the Line of Scrimmage, then the Spartans Defense yielded an average of 219 Yards Rushing per game, while the Spartans Offense compiled a total of 180 Yards Rushing or a miserable average of just 60 Yards Rushing per game. So, there is an old adage that says: “if you can’t run the football, you can’t win”, so it’s no surprise, the Spartans lost their last 3 games.

Comparative stats vs a common opponent:

Of course, both Illinois and Michigan State played Wisconsin and the comparative stats are noteworthy.

The Spartans Defense yielded 222 Yards Rushing to Wisconsin at 4.8 Yards per attempt, while the Spartans Offense compiled just 30 Yards Rushing at just 1.8 Yards per attempt, and of course the Spartans lost 38-0. By comparison, Illinois didn’t exactly shut down Wisconsin’s high powered Rushing Offense, but they yielded just 156 Yards Rushing to Wisconsin, or 60 Yards less than Wisconsin Rushing average for the season and it was enough to take Wisconsin out of rhythm: Illinois posted a 24-23 victory.

In fact, Illinois had Wisconsin off balance most of the game by way of forcing an Interception and two Fumbles, and while Illinois didn’t dominate the game, they were at least opportunistic

Big Ten statistical rankings:

Illinois is ranked an impressive #5 in Rushing Offense when measured in Big Ten competition, averaging a respectable 160 Yards per game at 4.0 Yards per attempt.

On the other hand, Illinois ranks a dismal #12 in Passing Offense, averaging just 125 Yards per game and it’s worth noting, Illinois only attempted 18 passes in their previous two games vs Purdue and Rutgers. In fact, Illinois completed just 3 of 7 passing attempts for 26 Yards vs Purdue. So, Illinois is not going to light up the airways with their Passing Offense.

By comparison, while the Spartans Passing Offense hasn’t exactly been dynamic, it has at least been solid averaging a respectable 233 Yards per game, including 218 Yards vs Ohio State and 182 Yards vs Penn State in a game where neither team exceeded 190 Yards Passing. When measured in Big Ten competition, the Spartans Passing Offense ranks #7 averaging a respectable 210 Yards per game and while that’s a middling ranking within the Big Ten, nevertheless it ranks ahead of Ohio State which ranks #9 at 200 Yards per game, and Wisconsin which ranks #11 at 159 Yards per game.

So, the Spartans are still capable of Passing the football, but with reliable Wide Receiver Darrell Stewart seemingly out for the season due to injury, the Spartans will now try to make due with a handful of backup Receivers. Can they move the chains when it matters most?

At the bottom line:

It’s hard to believe, but at the start of November the Spartans are two victories shy of Bowl eligibility.

Yet the Spartans should have enough resolve to beat Illinois at Spartan Stadium and get one victory closer. It would be fair to say, Illinois Offense is “one dimensional” with an inability to complete passes with any consistency, averaging just 125 Yards per game and completing just 48% of their Passing attempts. Brandon Peters, a Quarterback transfer from Michigan is not ranked within the Top 10 in either Passing Yardage or Passing Efficiency, so the Spartans “spotty” Pass Defense should be able to “shut down” Peters, thereby making Illinois totally dependent upon their Rushing Offense to move the Chains.

In that context, the Spartans Rushing Defense, while not the “dominant” unit it has been in years gone by, “should” have enough left in the tank to keep Illinois below their Big Ten Rushing average of 160 Yards per game, and if they do, then Brandon Peters is incapable of controlling the game from the Quarterback position. After all, Illinois rank dead last in 3rd Down Conversions when measured in Big Ten competition, converting just 26%.

While Illinois is riding a 3 game winning streak and while the Spartans are suffering a 3 game losing streak, the Spartans should have enough left in the tank to beat Illinois. The question will become, can the Spartans Offense score “any points”?

It’s unfortunate, but the Spartans summer dreams has been replaced with a stark November reality.