Michigan State is looking to be 7-0 after facing Illinois Saturday, but the Fighting Illini has different hopes. Illinois has the 20th best defense nationally and will be a challenge for Michigan State to get through.
(AP) — The last time Michigan State won its first seven games, it won a national championship.
Mark Dantonio refuses to think that far ahead.
The 13th-ranked Spartans seek their first 7-0 start since 1966 when Illinois visits East Lansing on Saturday.
After defeating then-No. 18 Michigan 34-17 last weekend, the Spartans have won their first six games for the first time since 1999 – Nick Saban’s last season as coach.
“We’re halfway through,” Dantonio said. “It’s going very well, but that doesn’t make a season. The more we win, the bigger game it becomes.”
Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) won its last three games without Dantonio on the sidelines while he recovered from a mild heart attack suffered Sept. 19 after a 34-31 overtime victory against Notre Dame. Dantonio watched from the press box last weekend and is hopeful he can be on the field against the Fighting Illini (3-2, 1-1).
Kirk Cousins ranks ninth in the nation with a 167.5 passer rating and leads a Michigan State offense averaging 473.2 yards. Edwin Baker’s 683 rushing yards – which include a 147-yard performance against Michigan – rank 10th in the country, and freshman Le’Veon Bell averages 7.7 yards per carry for the Spartans, who had five plays of 40 or more yards last weekend.
“When we came (to Michigan State), we wanted to play with the best,” Dantonio said. “We wanted to be able to play at a high level, and to me that means you’ve got to be able to play with the top 20.
“We’ve been able to do that the last two weeks. We’ve got a great conference that we still have to play through that’s very difficult. I’m sure the next challenge awaits us next week.”
The main challenge will be overcoming Illinois’ defense, which ranks 20th nationally and shut down Penn State last Saturday in a 33-13 win. The Fighting Illini’s two losses have come to No. 21 Missouri and top-ranked Ohio State, two teams which Illinois held to season-low scoring totals.
“We played good last week, and obviously this is going to be a big, big challenge,” coach Ron Zook said. “They’re one of the two undefeated teams in the Big Ten, and it’s important to do what we want to do this week.”
That means Mikel LeShoure may have to continue shouldering the load for the Illinois offense. LeShoure, who accounted for both touchdowns in last season’s 24-14 loss to Michigan State, has rushed for over 100 yards in four of five games this season. He carried a season-high 27 times for 119 yards against Penn State.
The Spartans counter with a stingy defense of their own led by All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who has 46 tackles and leads the Big Ten in forced fumbles with three. Jones shadowed Heisman Trophy candidate Denard Robinson last Saturday and played a role in holding the Michigan quarterback to less than 100 yards rushing for the first time all season and forcing Robinson to throw three interceptions.
Jones and teammate Eric Gordon have a combined 684 career tackles, which is the most of any active linebacker duo in the FBS.
However, Michigan State will have to do without the services of starting defensive back Chris L. Rucker after he was suspended by Dantonio earlier this week for an unspecified violation of team rules.
The Spartans have won 10 of the last 11 meetings between these teams. Illinois’ last victory in the series came in 2006, when it won 23-20 in East Lansing on a last-second field goal.
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