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Monday, September 28, 2009
Spartans, Illini seeing red as October approaches

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The calendar hasn't even reached October yet, and two Big Ten teams are seeing things slip away after being hyped throughout the summer.

Jeff Hanisch/US PRESSWIRE
Mark Dantonio will try to turn it around against No. 22 Michigan on Saturday.
Michigan State and Illinois own a combined record of 2-5 with zero FBS wins between them. The Spartans were picked third in the league before the season, while Illinois had been pegged as a potential dark-horse candidate in the league because of its explosive offense led by quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Needless to say, both squads have fallen well short of expectations.

Is it surprising to see these two teams in this position? Yes and no.

We expected some growing pains at quarterback for Michigan State, which didn't settle on a starter in camp, but not the struggles Williams has endured against Missouri and Ohio State. We expected Illinois' secondary to fall off a bit without star cornerback Vontae Davis, but Michigan State crowed all offseason about its depth at defensive back, only to get shredded by Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen and Scott Tolzien.

Those trends are somewhat shocking, but then again, both programs historically don't handle high hopes well.

Illinois followed its surprising Rose Bowl run in 2007 with a 5-7 clunker last year. The Illini followed another BCS bowl appearance in 2001 with a 5-7 letdown the next fall. They haven't reached consecutive bowl games since 1991-92.

Michigan State's recent disappointments are even more infamous, perhaps because they've often taken place within a season. The Spartans started strong in 2003, 2005, 2006 and even 2007 before struggling down the stretch.

Both teams host ranked opponents Saturday, as No. 15 Penn State visits Champaign and No. 22 Michigan visits East Lansing. A week later, Michigan State and Illinois meet in Memorial Stadium.

Which team will ultimately fall apart? Will it be both? Or could both squads turn things around and make the postseason?

All three scenarios are realistic, but it'd be hard to see both teams digging out of early holes.

Despite Michigan State's lackluster defense and continued flux at quarterback, don't count out the Spartans just yet.

Kirk Cousins has done some good things, and while he needs to be more consistent, the pieces are in place there. The Spartans boast a good group of wide receivers and tight ends, seven of whom have already caught touchdown passes this season. Greg Jones might be the Big Ten's best linebacker.

Mark Dantonio needs to clean up the mess in his secondary, but there's still a glimmer of hope for this team. The leadership remains solid with Dantonio, Cousins and Jones, and it was a good sign to see Michigan State hold a rare Sunday night practice after the Wisconsin loss.

Illinois continues to work hard as well, but the problems in Champaign are more troubling.

It's never good when the league's most experienced quarterback gets replaced twice in the first three games for poor production. Despite the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps and several decent running backs, Illinois has scored one garbage-time touchdown against an FBS defense. The defense clearly misses Davis, Brit Miller and the injured Martez Wilson.

The issues seem to point at a lack of leadership. Head coach Ron Zook drew criticism at Florida for recruiting great talent but failing to maximize it. Is this a redux in Champaign?

"You only need six or seven wins to make it to a bowl game," Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent said. "There’s no crisis right now. We’re not in panic mode."

Despite being pulled for backup Eddie McGee against Ohio State, Williams still considers himself the player teammates turn to in adverse situations. He's determined to perform better and lead differently.

"We have to be more demanding," Williams said, "make sure guys are doing the correct things and make sure everything is going in the right direction. It's easy to lead when things are going good, but it's harder to lead when things are going bad, and that's the type of situation we're in.

"The leaders on the team have to be ready to step up."

This much is clear: Illinois and Michigan State have to step up Saturday.

If not, an Oct. 10 matchup that looked appetizing a month ago will have a very sour taste.