(WSCR) Coming off a big win against Penn State, the Illini take to the road again for an equally daunting task. Last week’s victory came despite multiple special teams mistakes that could have easily lead to an Illini disaster. Return man Jack Ramsey fumbled three times on punt returns. Fortunately, a strong Illini defense held the Nittany Lions to two field goals.
Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure have proven to be an effective offensive duo for the Illini. In order to walk into East Lansing and take a victory from the 13th ranked Michigan State Spartans, both Scheelhaase and Leshoure will have to repeat their big performances from last week.
The last time Illinois came to Spartan Stadium back in 2006, head coach Ron Zook was looking for his first Big Ten win.
Against the odds, he got it.
But the Illini created a stir by trying to plant a jumbo school flag at midfield after the game, right in the middle of the giant letter S. There was pushing, shoving, fines and reprimands.
“That was so blown out of proportion,” Zook says now. “I kind of lost a good friend that’s a (sports) writer in South Florida that’s a Michigan State grad.”
Not many of the current Illini (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) were a part of that 23-20 win and few have ever been to the stadium. But those who haven’t say the seniors on the team have been telling them all about what they believe is one of the toughest and maybe one of the most underrated places to play in the Big Ten.
And that’s before you factor in this year’s 13th-ranked Spartans (6-0, 2-0).
“They’ve got a pretty crazy stadium, from what I hear from the guys,” redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said.
Spartan officially holds just over 75,000 in an enclosed bowl, and those closest to the field are just a few feet above and behind the narrow sidelines. Illinois is a 7-point underdog for Saturday’s game.
The last time they made the trip to East Lansing, the Illini – with just three wins in 15 games under Zook – oddsmakers figured the Illini would lose by a bunch, setting the line at 26.
But Illinois played probably its best game of 2006 and won on a 39-yard field goal by Jason Reda with 6 seconds left.
What happened over the next 2-plus minutes is forever archived in at least one YouTube video recorded from the stands.
A handful of Illini players rushed toward midfield with the giant, orange-and-blue flag and briefly planted it there.
Both teams converged and the flag quickly disappeared in a sea of shoving and shouting. Both Zook and Michigan State coach John L. Smith, among others, held players back and eventually herded them toward their locker rooms.
It all looked a lot like the night a year earlier when Michigan State players planted their own big, green flag in the turf at Notre Dame after a win.
“It never would have happened had they not seen them the (year) before doing it at Notre Dame,” Zook said of his players. “Believe me, they didn’t plan, `Hey, if we win this game, we’re going to go do something silly like that.’ I assure you, we hadn’t won enough games to do something like that.”
Zook apologized after the game, but the Big Ten fined Illinois and Michigan $10,000 apiece and reprimanded the coaches.
Illinois didn’t win another game, and Michigan State only won one more, finishing 4-8 and costing Smith his job.
The next spring, as Zook prepared to announce his second consecutive highly rated recruiting class, Smith suggested the Illini must be cheating in a New York Times story that raised questions about how Illinois was convincing top high school players from Florida and elsewhere to play in Champaign.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire,” Smith told the Times.
Zook wouldn’t say much this week about past relations with Michigan State, but said he and current Spartan coach Mark Dantonio know each other well and get along. Zook said he sent Dantonio a note after his recent heart attack.
“Hopefully, he respects us. We respect them,” Zook said. “We go against each other a lot in recruiting. When you compete, you compete.”
Most of the current Illini, the ones who weren’t there in 2006, seem to know little about the incident. And, after winning in front of more than 100,000 people at Penn State, a lot of them talk about feeding off the energy of noisy, hostile fans like those they expect to see Saturday.
“Going there and just taking the breath out of the fans, it just feels real good,” receiver A.J. Jenkins said. “It shows we can be real good.”
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