Friday, October 15, 2010
Spartans try to dodge trap against Illinois
By Adam Rittenberg
Michigan State and Illinois both like their current positions heading into Saturday's clash in East Lansing.
The Spartans are 6-0 for the first time since 1999. They come off of back-to-back wins against ranked opponents (Wisconsin and Michigan), a feat Michigan State last accomplished in 1974. They have ascended to No. 13 in the AP Poll and are getting mentioned as a potential darkhorse national title contender.
Life is good for the Green and White.
Illinois coach Ron Zook is happy in the role of underdog against Michigan State.
The arrow also points up for Illinois, which scored its first-ever victory in Happy Valley last week and did so in dominating fashion, thrashing Penn State 33-13. Illinois has held its own during its toughest stretch of the season, making Ohio State work for a 24-13 win in Champaign before stunning JoePa's crew. An Illini team many folks dismissed before the season sits at 3-2 and heads to Spartan Stadium brimming with confidence.
"We feel like we can compete with any team in the nation," Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure said. "I feel like we're a complete team. We're playing to our potential."
That's the dangerous thing about Saturday's game for Michigan State. Illinois' potential always has been very high, but aside from the 2007 season, the team hasn't achieved it under coach Ron Zook.
Despite Illinois' mini surge, Michigan State is expected to take care of business on its home field.
"I don't think there's any question: we're the underdog and they're the team that's being hunted," Zook said.
Zook's players have no problems with that setup.
"We don't really have a lot of pressure on us," Leshoure said, "so we just go out and play loose and try to win the games. Not having that ranking and being underdogs, that benefits us."
Michigan State isn't about to trade in its ranking or its undefeated record, but how the Spartans handle being favored remains to be seen.
The Spartans still fight a perception that they can't sustain success. Many outsiders still view Michigan State like a Jenga tower: remove the wrong piece, and the whole thing comes crashing down.
This Spartans team seems different. These players are no strangers to adversity both on and off the field.
Whether it's moving on from the residence hall mess in December to overcoming the health-related absence of coach Mark Dantonio to convincingly beating Wisconsin despite three first-half turnovers to slowing down Denard Robinson in the Big House, Michigan State has shown itself to be a mentally tough team.
The next question: Can the Spartans win a classic trap game?
Quarterback Kirk Cousins and Michigan State, coming off two emotional wins, play host to an improving Illinois team.
"Illinois has our attention, certainly," Dantonio said. "They've put together two very good football games. ... The games get bigger as we move forward, so I'm sure our players will be ready to play. But it will speak to our maturity. We need to test the waters in that area."
Arguably a college coach's greatest challenge is to get his team emotionally prepared for each game, a nearly impossible task for all 12 weeks. Michigan State had no trouble getting motivated for Wisconsin and Michigan, and players used Dantonio as extra incentive.
Will Illinois bring out the same fire from the Spartans? Dantonio thinks it will. In each of Dantonio's previous three seasons, Michigan State has followed its rivalry game against Michigan with a victory (the Spartans beat Purdue in 2007, Wisconsin in 2008 and Illinois last year).
The other factor benefiting the Spartans is leadership. They boast a strong senior class and three respected season captains in linebacker Greg Jones, quarterback Kirk Cousins and punter Aaron Bates.
"I've been here since 2006," Spartans senior linebacker Eric Gordon said, "and this is the best senior leadership I've ever had, and overall leadership of a whole team. Everyone pushes everyone, and everyone's competing.
"We want to be Big Ten champions. Our next opponent is Illinois, and they're in our way."