Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive end Auston Robertson (94) pressures Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan State football suffered a tough loss to Illinois on Saturday and here are five takeaways.
What is going on with this year’s Michigan State football team? After starting 2-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country, the Spartans have lost seven straight games and look like the worst team in the Big Ten right now — although Rutgers would give them a run for their money.
Luckily (maybe) for Michigan State, Rutgers comes to town this Saturday in a battle of the Big Ten’s only winless teams in conference play. The Spartans are in desperate need of a win but the Scarlet Knights are in the same boat. It will be interesting to see what type of turnout Spartan Stadium gets with a lackluster showdown in East Lansing.
In the minds of many Spartan fans, it’s basketball season and time to forget this horrid two-month stretch of Michigan State football. Unfortunately, the pain on Saturdays won’t go away as long as this team is still playing. Can the Spartans end the unbelievable seven-game skid this Saturday against Rutgers?
Looking back, here are the five major takeaways from the Spartans’ Week 10 loss to Illinois.
5. Offensive line took major steps back
It was just an ugly showing from the Spartans’ offensive line on Saturday. After a strong confidence-building performance against Michigan, the Spartans’ grunts up front looked sluggish and it was clear that they just weren’t prepared for the Illini.
Watching the line get manhandled play after play was discouraging, especially since it seemed like things were turning around. Miguel Machado had the worst game of any Spartan offensive lineman in recent memory in terms of holding, false starts and just flat-out missing blocks, but Thiyo Lukusa wasn’t much better when he came in.
Kodi Kieler was out for this one which may have contributed to some of the struggles, but missing one guy is no excuse to play like they did.
Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough (30) and linebacker Chris Frey (23) tackle Illinois Fighting Illini running back Kendrick Foster (22) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
4. Run defense continues to struggle
This run defense has been a major disappointment this season. After starting the year strong, holding guys like Josh Adams, Corey Clement and Devine Redding in check, the Spartans have allowed 100-yard rushers left and right.
In fact, Michigan State allowed BYU, Northwestern, Maryland and now Illinois to run all over them with 100-yard rushers. This week it was Kendrick Foster who had the big day carrying the ball, running just 17 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. His long of 64 yards was the big back-breaker for the Spartans.
The front-seven is having a difficult time holding teams in check, allowing them to do whatever they want on the ground. It’s surprising to see guys like Riley Bullough and Ed Davis over-pursue on plays — throw Chris Frey in that group as well.
Michigan State has made a living over the past few years by not allowing teams to run the ball with ease. The Spartans have been a run-stopping team and that just hasn’t been the case this year. Although the Illini only had 18 rushing yards outside of Foster, they did average about seven yards per carry.
Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) scores a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the first half at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
3. LJ Scott can’t seem to hold onto starting job
If you’re one of those people who believe that LJ Scott should be the starting running back for Michigan State, you’re not alone. The sophomore running back is easily the most talented player at the position on the team, but right now Gerald Holmes is out-performing him.
After a solid start to the game which included a 15-yard run to open things up for the offense, Scott seemed to go back to his old ways of running straight instead of looking for openings on the outside or seams up the middle. A lot of the struggles after the first drive could be attributed to the fact that the offensive line was outmatched.
Two straight 100-yard games heading into the Illinois contest made it seem like Scott was the clear No. 1 running back. He was showing why he was one of the highest-rated running back prospects in the country last year and the excitement was back when watching him tote the ball.
However, he suffered a major setback when he fumbled the ball to open the second half, giving Illinois major momentum. This was the case the last time it looked like Scott was the No. 1 guy in the backfield, fumbling in the second half against Wisconsin.
Scott didn’t see the field much for the rest of the game and the reason was obvious. Ball security is a major key to victory, and the sophomore back wasn’t careful enough. That cost Michigan State some momentum to start the half and it took a while to regain it.
Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans wide receiver R.J. Shelton (12) runs the ball during the first half of a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
2. R.J. Shelton is the real deal
The senior receiver seems to be one of the remaining guys on the team who actually gives it his all on every single play. R.J. Shelton is one of the best wide outs in the Big Ten and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise seeing as he has been solid throughout his career and he’s finally getting his chance to be the go-to guy.
Since getting held without a catch in the first game of the season against Furman, Shelton has racked up 44 receptions for 678 yards and five touchdowns. All three of those marks now officially surpass previous career-highs and he is having the best season of his career.
Shelton has surpassed the 100-catch mark for his Michigan State career and has been the most sure-handed receiver on the team. He did have a drop or two on Saturday against Illinois, but he more than made up for it with an impressive high-rising touchdown reception to tie the game with less than three minutes left.
The toe-tapping reception in the back of the end zone made it look like the Spartans would come out with a victory, taking a 27-24 lead, but the defense couldn’t hold on, allowing the Illini to march down the field for six.
Despite the tough season Michigan State is going through, the Spartans have to like what they’ve gotten from senior wide out R.J. Shelton. He’s the real deal.
Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Chunky Clements (11) pressures Michigan State Spartans quarterback Damion Terry (6) on a throw during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Illinois beat Michigan State 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
1. The 2017 QB battle is becoming clearer
The quarterback play on Saturday wasn’t the best. No, Tyler O’Connor didn’t play awful, but he wasn’t impressive, either. He completed 23-of-35 passes for 265 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. His failure to find the end zone was a little shocking to me.
With one month remaining in his collegiate career, I would have thought that O’Connor would play with nothing to lose and have the best month of his career. He kicked it off with a mediocre performance against Illinois and was subsequently injured later in the game on a quarterback sneak.
Damion Terry came in and the junior didn’t look especially sharp, missing some easy passes, including a crucial one late in the game that ended up getting reviewed. He had Gerald Holmes on a short dump-off pass and threw it to the turf. Holmes made it look like a reception and took it for a first down inside the Illini 15-yard-line with under a minute left.
The play was reviewed and called an incomplete pass. If he had thrown the easy pass to his chest instead of at his feet, the game may have ended in an MSU win. Instead, the Spartans failed to get a first down as Terry ran the ball into traffic on a 4th-and-3 to end the game.
Plays like that can separate average quarterbacks from good quarterbacks. That play may have been the deal-sealer for Terry’s chances to start at quarterback next year and the battle this offseason is becoming more clear.
It will likely be between Brian Lewerke and Messiah deWeaver next season.