The Illinois Fighting Illini have a chance to qualify for their first bowl game since 2014 this weekend when they visit the Michigan State Spartans. Game time is at 3:30 EST on Saturday, November 9 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. Fans can watch the game on FS1.
According to our Week 11 college football odds, the Spartans are 15.5-point favorites at home. The game also has an over/under of 45.5 points.
Illinois has been patient with head coach Lovie Smith, and that patience may finally be about to pay off. After a four-game losing streak earlier this year, the Fighting Illini were looking at another losing season. But they’ve turned things around, starting with that improbable upset over Wisconsin. The Illini have followed that upset with wins over Purdue and Rutgers to get them to 5-4 on the season, one win shy of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
Of course, that sixth win is sometimes the most difficult to get, especially when Illinois has been waiting for it for so long. If the Illini can’t keep up their momentum from three straight wins and beat Michigan State this week, they’ll only have two chances left against Iowa and Northwestern to become bowl eligible. Getting that sixth win this week might be their best bet to help keep the pressure off late in the season.
As for Michigan State, they’re still two wins away from becoming bowl eligible. The Spartans are 4-4 and are coming off a bye week that was preceded by a three-game losing streak. In fairness, those three losses were to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. However, Mark Dantonio’s team wasn’t exactly competitive in those games, scoring just 17 total points and losing each game by at least 21 points.
As a result, the Spartans are just trying to avoid missing a bowl game for the second time in four years. MSU has to play in-state rival Michigan next week and doesn’t want to head to Ann Arbor losing four in a row. Late-season games against Rutgers and Maryland should afford Michigan State a good opportunity to reach six wins. But the Spartans don’t want to be facing must-win games, so it’s important to get back on track with a win this week.
This will be the first time Michigan State and Illinois have crossed paths since 2016 when Smith and the Illini knocked off Dantonio’s Spartans 31-27. However, that’s one of only two wins that Illinois has over the Spartans since 1992.
I’m not sure if Illinois can pull off another upset in this game, but I do have some concerns about Michigan State covering this many points. The Spartans are better than they’ve shown in their last three games that just happened to come against the three best teams in the Big Ten. But MSU is far from a complete team, which is why taking Illinois as an underdog is the safer choice.
My biggest fear in this game is that the Michigan State defense will be able to pitch a shutout against the Illini. The Spartans have been outstanding at stopping the run for the past two seasons. That allows them to force opposing offenses out of their comfort zone and away from their game plan. But they’ve been just vulnerable enough this year, even in games they’ve won, to make me think the Illini have a fighting chance of getting something productive from their running game.
Illinois has had a steady rushing attack all season behind Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, who have combined for over 1,000 rushing yards and both average over five yards per carry. The Illini don’t like to ask too much of their passing game if they don’t have to. But quarterback Brandon Peters, a transfer from Michigan, has been steady and able to avoid turnovers during the team’s recent winning streak.
On the other side of the ball, I continue to have reservations about the MSU offense scoring enough points to cover a spread this big. In fairness, they’ve been able to score points against teams like Indiana and Northwestern before their recent slump. But the Michigan State running game is functional at best, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on the season. Also, quarterback Brian Lewerke hasn’t performed like a senior with three years of experience as a starter under his belt. Even in MSU’s wins, his accuracy has been lacking and the Spartans have struggled to create explosive plays.
Meanwhile, the Illinois defense has turned things around after giving up last least 40 points in their first three conference games of the season. Admittedly, I don’t want to overreact too much to the Illini being able to shut down Purdue and Rutgers. But the Illinois defense did hold Wisconsin to just 23 points and force three turnovers in their upset over the Badgers, so there is some potential on that side of the ball.
In the end, I think the Illinois defense is just good enough to contain a Michigan State offense that’s somewhat limited. That should force a low-scoring game, making it hard for the Spartans to pull away. Even if the Illinois offense doesn’t produce much, I don’t have enough faith in Michigan State to cover 15.5 points, so I’ll stick with the underdog.