Michigan State’s losing streak is now six games. That’s an unthinkable number considering where this program was 10 months ago, but it is reality. The Spartans are 2-6 on the season and are winless in their five Big Ten games.
Now along comes Illinois. The Illini are also 2-6 but have a conference win against Rutgers to their credit. Lovie Smith, a former NFL head coach with Chicago and Tampa Bay, has had his share of struggles in his first year of rebuilding the program. Illinois has used 25 first-time starters this season, the most of any FBS team in the nation.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET on ESPN NEWS.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Is Illinois the tonic Michigan State needs to cure its losing streak?
It certainly looks that way but nothing is certain with the Spartans this season. They played well in the second half of last Saturday’s 32-23 loss to No. 2 Michigan, outscoring the Wolverines 13-5.
It was the first time all season Michigan State held an opponent without a touchdown in the second half. The offense missed an opportunity early in the third quarter to cut into a 17-point deficit but kept plugging away to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Illinois has lost its six games by an average of 20.5 points — and lost its last two to Michigan and Minnesota by a combined 56 points.
2. Can LJ Scott and the run game continue its resurgence?
Michigan State has rushed for more than 200 yards in each of the last two games, Scott topping 100 yards in those games. That is the foundation for everything Michigan State wants to do offensively.
The offensive line has gotten better push more consistently the last couple of games. Michigan had been allowing just 96 yards a game on the ground but Michigan State finished with 217 yards in last weekend’s 32-23 loss. Scott was the first back to go over 100 yards against the Wolverines this season.
Illinois’ run defense has allowed 194 yards per game. This is a matchup favoring Michigan State.
3. Speaking of run defense, can Michigan State gets its in order?
The Spartans allowed 87 yards rushing to Furman in the opener and then 57 yards to Notre Dame in their second game. Since then, Michigan State has given up an average of 198 yards per game on the ground. It ended a streak of allowing three straight 200-yard games against Michigan, but not by much. The Wolverines rushed for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Across the field, Illinois redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin is averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Junior Kendrick Foster is sixth in the Big Ten averaging 116.3 all-purpose yards per game. Sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn led the team in rushing last season and is being used as a quarterback out of the wildcat formation this season.
4. How much will Mark Dantonio play for the future at quarterback?
Junior Damion Terry has never started a game in his Michigan State career. The next two games against Illinois and Rutgers would be the ideal time to find out what Terry can offer. He’ll be in the mix to start next season. Brian Lewerke, out with a broken leg suffered last weekend, got starts against Northwestern and Maryland, enabling him to get that experience. Will Terry get the same opportunity?
Senior Tyler O’Connor is the most experienced quarterback on the team. Michigan State has its best chance to be at its best when O’Connor is playing. This team needs a win. How does Dantonio balance that immediate need with finding out what he has for next season?
5. Can Michigan State finish in the red zone?
The Spartans had their chances against Michigan. Six of them, to be exact. Six times Michigan State had the ball inside the Michigan 20-yard line but it failed to score any points on three of those possessions. Twice Michigan stopped Michigan State on downs and a missed field goal ended the other drive.
Michigan State doesn’t have much margin for error this season. That’s been proven. When it gets chances to score, it can’t come away empty-handed. The six red-zone possessions against Michigan account for one-quarter of the red-zone possessions Michigan State has had this season. That’s a positive. The Spartans have to convert those opportunities.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo