Michigan State Football: 5 players to watch vs. Illinois

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O

Michigan State football facing a depleted Illinois team on Saturday, so which Spartans should we be keeping an eye on.

Saturday’s Michigan State football game against Illinois in Champaign has a must-win feel to it. The Spartans have lost six straight games and look to be on the verge of missing a bowl game in 2016, but will need to win this one in order to stay alive.

Surprisingly, Michigan State opened as 9.5-point favorites, showing that Vegas still believes this team has the talent to get the job done on the road. Illinois, too, is 2-6 on the year and looking to win in order to stay alive in the bowl chase.

However, Lovie Smith’s first season with the Fighting Illini has gone quite the opposite of what he was expecting. He might not be having the greatest first season as head coach, but he’s hoping this lackluster campaign leads to a turnaround next year and beyond.

In a battle of 2-6 squads, which team will come out on top? If the Spartans play the way they did against Michigan last Saturday, they’ll be the winners of this one.

Here are five guys we should be keeping an eye on.

5

Thiyo Lukusa

OT, Freshman

The future of Michigan State’s offensive line could be very bright. In fact, the Spartans have already inserted redshirt freshman Tyler Higby into the trenches as a starter and Mark Dantonio burned true freshman Thiyo Lukusa’s redshirt earlier in the year to get him some much-deserved playing time.

That was over a month ago and now the young kid is looking like the future at one of the tackle positions. He has played primarily right tackle, but he could make the switch to left next year if he continues to improve.

Just imagine a future offensive line with Brian Allen, Cole Chewins, Lukusa and Higby. Heck, Matthew Allen could start at center next year and follow the footsteps of his two older brothers.

Either way, Lukusa is going to be a guy we need to keep an eye on Saturday. If he plays well enough, he could end up winning the starting job by the end of the season.

Sep 17, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (6) is cover by Michigan State Spartans cornerback Vayante Copeland (13) during the second half a game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

4

Vayante Copeland

CB, Sophomore

If you were one of those people who predicted a breakout season from Vayante Copeland, you’re not alone. He showed plenty of promise through the first couple games of 2015 before injuring himself and having to sit out for the remainder of the season. If he was healthy, Michigan State may not have had secondary issues the way it did.

However, he has been pedestrian, at best, this season. No, he’s not getting burned deep every play. Heck, he’s rarely getting burned at all, but he’s not playing at the high level everyone was expecting him to.

This might be because of the injury setting his progress back. He was a first-year starter and was just getting the hang of things. Suffering a season-ending injury just when he was starting to gain some confidence seemed to do him in. He may not be playing great, but he’s still an important piece of the future puzzle.

The sophomore could face a young quarterback in Jeff George Jr. who has failed to get the Illini passing attack going in Wes Lunt’s absence. Either way, the Spartans will be facing a lackluster pass game and Copeland will need to have a big game.

Now that he’s no longer listed as an ‘OR’ at corner, will he break out?

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) runs the ball against Michigan Wolverines linebacker Mike McCray (9) during the first half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

3

LJ Scott

RB, Sophomore

One of the best performers and a huge bright spot for the Spartans over the last couple of weeks has been LJ Scott. The sophomore running back is starting to finally break out as the team’s No. 1 running back, putting together two straight 100-plus yard games.

It’s obvious that the solution to the run game’s troubles is Scott’s increased workload. In fact, the Spartan running back has 470 yards and four touchdowns with 5.6 yards per carry in the four games in which he has at least 20 carries. In the four games in which he has less than 20 carries, he has 131 yards and 4.3 yards per touch with no scores.

The coaching staff is starting to realize that getting him the ball early and often will usually lead to success on the ground. Taking on a tough Michigan defense last week, the Spartans ran it down the Wolverines’ throats on the first possession, striking first with an eight-minute Mark Dantonio classic drive.

Scott finished the game with a season-high 139 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. His 6.3 yards per touch is a number that he could realistically average for the remainder of the season if the blocking continues to improve and his vision does as well.

Will Scott be able to record his third straight 100-yard game and the fourth on the season?

Sep 17, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Michigan State Football wide receiver Donnie Corley (9) celebrates after MSU defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 36-28 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

2

Donnie Corley

WR, Freshman

Another one of those bright spots this season has been freshman wide receiver Donnie Corley. He has come in to look like one of the best first-year players Dantonio has ever coached and he’s caught 23 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. On pace to break 500 yards as a freshman, Corley could go down as one of the top receivers MSU has ever had.

Corley has been quiet over the past two weeks, catching just two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown while adding a 23-yard rush. He has looked just as effective, but quarterbacks continue to miss him wide open.

For example, Brian Lewerke started for Michigan State against Maryland and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t on the same page with Corley. The freshman wide out was wide open on a slant route on one particular play in the red zone and Lewerke threw right at his shoes. It would have been an easy touchdown for Donnie.

This is a chance for him to get incorporated into the offense a little more against a defense that has struggled this season. Also, if you don’t recognize the freshman on the field, he changed from No. 9 to No. 29 in order to play both ways.

Keep an eye on Corley in the secondary as well. He was listed on this week’s depth chart as the starting wide out and third-string cornerback.

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O

1

Tyler O'Connor

QB, Senior

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been the biggest advocate for Tyler O’Connor as the starter for Michigan State. In fact, I have been a supporter of the Brian Lewerke era and, admittedly, even for Damion Terry to get a shot.

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O’Connor has been one of the most mediocre starting quarterbacks in the Dantonio era, comparing to Andrew Maxwell. However, Maxwell was able to lead Michigan State to a bowl game and a 7-6 overall record in 2012.

This season is not even close to a success. Losing Connor Cook was a tougher blow than many had anticipated as no one thought Michigan State would be in danger of missing out on a bowl game after making the College Football Playoff in 2015.

The Spartans still have a shot to play in late-December, but O’Connor is going to need to have the best month of his life at quarterback. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s going to have to be more accurate to make up for that.

How will he fare against a mediocre Illinois defense on Saturday afternoon? Will he finish with his first 300-yard performance of the season and go interception-less for the first time since Oct. 8? He’s going to have to with Lewerke out for the year and the offense sputtering, outside of the Michigan game.

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