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'They can get us': Staggered Michigan State appears vulnerable vs. 'hot' Illinois

Matt Charboneau   | The Detroit News
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East Lansing – One team is talking playoffs while one says it feels like a wounded animal.

That’s the approach as Illinois comes to Spartan Stadium to take on Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. However, the narrative for each team is hardly what many expected it would be before the season began.

Back in August as teams prepared for the 2019 season, it was Michigan State that had championship dreams, a national ranking backing up the fact it returned the majority of its starters from a season ago, while Illinois was heading into year four under coach Lovie Smith having won only a total of four Big Ten games.

However, with just four weeks left in the regular season, it’s Illinois that is surging while Michigan State is wilting. The Fighting Illini have won three in a row – a run that began with an upset of Wisconsin – and now sits one more victory from becoming bowl eligible. Michigan State, meanwhile, hasn’t won a game since September and has lost three in a row by a combined score of 100-17.

Somehow, though, Michigan State (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) still enters as a double-digit favorite at home, a position that has them feeling far from overconfident.

“They’re hot right now. We know that,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “We see that on the film. They can get us. We know that. We’re not overlooking theme one bit.”

And why would the Spartans overlook anyone at this point? The offense continues to be unable to score points on a consistent basis, the injuries have piled up week after week and Michigan State has played just one game in the last three weeks.

Add in the suspension of senior linebacker and two-time captain Joe Bachie and the Spartans are in a tough spot, still two victories from locking up a bowl berth for the 12th time in coach Mark Dantonio’s 13 seasons.

“Life has its ups and downs,” fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “Right now we’re going through some tough times with the injuries and the last couple of weeks. How are you gonna bounce back? How are you gonna regroup as a team? Who’s gonna bring the team back and how are we gonna come back out on Saturday and leave it all out there?”

Those are legitimate questions for Michigan State. Answering them became tougher over the last couple weeks, beginning with the loss of Bachie, who will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Noah Harvey.

But add in injuries to fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart, the team’s leading receiver, and junior center Matt Allen, and the depth chart is starting to be populated by more and more young, inexperienced players. Dantonio’s job is to get the current group to understand it can’t erase the last three games and it can’t win the next four on one day.

“You can't look past one game. You can't look past one play,” Dantonio said. “You need to focus on your job, do your job and get yourself ready to go. That's the way we have always done it, win or lose, success or times of struggle; we tried to do that and it's benefited us by doing that, and we take the next-man-up mentality, and it's happened before.”

There are no such issues over on the other side of the field.

Life is good for the Fighting Illini (5-4, 3-3), a team many expected to take up residence in the cellar of the West Division. For the first six games of the season, that prediction seemed right on the number as the Illini had two wins in the non-conference but lost at home to Eastern Michigan before losing its first three Big Ten games.

Then came the win over Wisconsin, which was the No. 6 team in the nation at that point. Illinois then went on the road to beat Purdue before rolling over Rutgers last week.

With one more win, the Illini are back in a bowl game for the first time since 2014, and that fact has them treating this game like it’s for all the marbles.

“Our football team realizes where we are, of course,” Smith said. “One of our goals has been to take steps as we build our program. One of those steps is to get to a bowl game, and we don't talk about that an awful lot until you get to that game where if you win, you're in. So as we talk about being in the playoffs, I mean this is it. This is a playoff game, of course, and we are looking at it that way.”

The Illini are, of course, a long way from the actual playoffs, a spot Michigan State was four years ago, though it feels much longer than that.

But Smith and his team also understand nothing is given. After Saturday, the Illini have a week off then close with Iowa and Northwestern, so getting win No. 6 as soon as possible is critical. They believe it will be difficult in Spartan Stadium, regardless of recent history.

“Michigan State is one of the best programs in college football, and that's what we're going against,” Smith said. “We have an opportunity to do something in November that we haven't had in a long period of time and that's all the seniors have been asking. To have a chance to finish it up the right way, I'm betting on it.”

While it’s exactly the November Illinois was hoping for, Michigan State is hoping the final month offers a chance to add a spark to an otherwise disappointing season.

“The challenge is you've got to get up off the mat a little bit,” Dantonio said. “You’ve got to get up off the mat and get ready to play. So the challenge to me is we played three very good football teams and let's go. It's November. We're coming down the stretch. You've got a hot team coming in here, but a football team that I believe, talking about our team, I believe our team will be ready to play.”

Illinois at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 4-4 (2-3 Big Ten), Illinois 5-4 (3-3)

Line: Michigan State by 14

Twitter: @mattcharboneau