After a 26-6 loss to No. 13 Michigan State, the Illini schedule gets more workable. Illinois doesn't face another team in this week's top 25.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Temporarily down from a third loss to a team in this week’s top 25, Illinois is looking forward to the second half of the football season.
From here, it gets much easier. Following a 26-6 loss at No. 13 Michigan State before a crowd of 74,441 on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the Illini took home some confidence after handling the toughest portion of the schedule better than anyone really expected.
“That’s the best team we’ve played to date,’’ Illini coach Ron Zook said. “We can compete with anybody else left on the schedule.’’
Illinois fell to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, with the other two losses to teams that entered the weekend with undefeated records — No. 1 Ohio State and No. 21 Missouri. The degree of difficulty changes for Illinois, beginning with a game against visiting Indiana next Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network). The Hoosiers (4-2, 0-2) rallied for a 36-34 win over Arkansas State on Saturday.
No team left on the schedule appeared in this week’s national rankings.
“We feel like we’re doing a lot of good things and getting better,’’ Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure said. “Those were ranked teams and tough teams. We still could have won any of those games. We have to try to win out from here.’’
That’s not crazy talk with No. 15 Iowa and No. 18 Wisconsin off the schedule.
“I don’t think anybody has their heads down,’’ Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We’re frustrated by the loss, but we have a lot of confidence moving forward. We have a huge part of this season left. We have a couple home games next. We need to come out with that fire and intensity. We’ll be all right.’’
Scheelhaase left the game late after losing his breath from a hard hit on the final drive but didn’t suffer a head injury, the quarterback said.
While the defense kept the Illini in the game, holding Michigan State to four yards rushing in the first half, Scheelhaase and the offense couldn’t come up with any big plays or piece together a drive after their first possession. Scheelhaase threw three interceptions, and receiver A.J. Jenkins fumbled on a 39-pass play to end the best scoring threat when the game was still on the line in the second half.
Other than the long pass play to Jenkins, Illinois didn’t gain more than 12 yards on any pass against a defense stacked against the run.
“If you don’t beat them deep, then you’re going to struggle moving the ball,’’ Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.
Illinois couldn’t keep the defense honest by connecting on big pass plays. Scheelhaase overthrew Jenkins on one opening, Jenkins was unable to catch a fade and Ryan Lankford beat the defense but Scheelhaase threw an interception when his throwing arm was hit.
That allowed a defense already stacked against the run to keep concentrating on Leshoure, who rushed for 83 yards on 23 carries.The defense kept Illinois close before Michigan State scored 23 points in the second half, when the Spartans (7-0, 3-0) compiled 217 yards of total offense.
“They’ve been averaging a ton of yards and a ton of points,’’ Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “We took them out of a bunch of their stuff. They started spreading us out a bit, and they forced us to back off some of those things.’’
A 48-yard touchdown pass from Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins to receiver B.J. Cunningham gave Michigan State a 13-6 lead with 8:26 left in the third quarter, likely breaking some of the defense’s spirit. The play was a result of bad communication between middle linebacker Martez Wilson and safety Tavon Wilson.
“That was a blown coverage between me and the safety,’’ Martez Wilson said. “I should have run with him. At the same time, you need the safety to help over the top. There was some confusion.’’
Defensive tackle Corey Liuget led the Illini with 11 tackles, but Michigan State won its first seven games for the first time since 1966. Coach Mark Dantonio spent most of the game upstairs in the coaches’ box while recovering from a mild heart attack, then received a standing ovation with 2:29 left when he returned to the field.
“It was humbling,’’ Dantonio said. “It was comforting. I’m not sure it would have been like that if it was 15-10, but I love the Spartans and hope to be here for a long time.’’
NOTES: Illini guard JACK CORNELL left the game late with a knee injury, but Zook didn’t think it was serious even though it might be a sprained medial collateral ligament. Illini fullback ZACH BECKER played for the first time this season after missing the first five games recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot. Cornerback TERRY HAWTHORNE (foot fracture) didn’t start but played the bulk of the game. . . Freshman wide receiver SPENCER HARRIS played for the first time this season.Illinois report card Offense -- F Illinois held the ball for 19 minutes 3 seconds in the first half but didn't convert that into a touchdown. With three interceptions and a lost fumble, Illinois didn't do enough to make it a game in the fourth quarter.
Defense -- BIllinois allowed only four yards rushing in the first half, then finally ran out of gas in the second half. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget played the best game of his career, finishing with a team-high 11 tackles.
Special teams -- APlacekicker Derek Dimke was perfect again, hitting field goals of 21 and 33 yards. Illinois also recovered a Michigan State fumble on a punt.
Overall -- CIllinois carried the lead into the second half, but the offense couldn't generate enough action to make a game of it. From here, it gets much easier for the Illini, who don't face another team in this week's top 25 rankings.