SOC - Michigan State
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OK so here's the thing. (No positive SOC ever begins with "OK so here's the thing".) We last won four consecutive Big Ten games in 2001, which happens to be the last time we won the Big Ten. Why 18 years? Because it's really hard to do. Is this the kind of team that can be the second Illini team this century to win four Big Ten games in a row? I don't think so.
And that's OK! There's nothing wrong with that! For once, it doesn't mean we're the worst team ever! We might just go on the road, play a more talented team, lose a tough battle, and be totally OK with it. The goal is a bowl, and we can still get there.
Actually, I should pause there. The goal is 7-5. MY goal is 7-5. I looked at the talent on the field in August, looked at the number of starters returning, and said "7-5". That's the "goal" here, and we'd be one game away had we not lost to Eastern Michigan.
So yes, my "goal" is to win two of the next three. Remember my whole "we'll win 18 of the next 31" after the Wisconsin game in 2018. We really need to win seven (and then win the bowl game) if we're going to get there.
But for this one, I just don't see a win. Everyone sees this 15-point line and says "how??" but everyone kind of forgets that we're still Illinois. Michigan State is more talented than us at maybe 15 positions on the field. We're improved, and we return almost everyone next year, and that's when my expectations crank up even higher, but for now, I don't think we're prepared to go on the road and beat Michigan State.
Just think of your reaction when you saw the line. Even Teddy Greenstein predicted it to be 3-4 points and when it opened at 13.5 he was all "what??". Why would the line seem so far off? Because we're still that team that lost to Eastern Michigan. We're playing much better, and we beat Wisconsin and manhandled Purdue, but we're "plucky rebuilding team starting to wake up", not "team that can roll Michigan State on the road".
(By the way, I'm writing this on the plane on my way to the game. The wifi isn't strong enough to watch the basketball game (duh), so I'm following the score and writing this. It appears we're up 37-30 at the moment.)
Let me go back to "four Big Ten wins in a row". It's just really, really hard to do. We've played six great halves the last seven halves of football. Michigan second half, full game against Wisconsin, full game against Purdue, second half against Rutgers). That's kind of incredible football-wise. It's just so hard to maintain a high level of play in conference. Turnovers happen, drives stall out, a single miscommunication leads to a long touchdown - it's college football.
Which brings me back to being a big "if there are five consecutive heads, the next one is absolutely tails" guy. I still think we bowl, and I still think we have a shot to get to seven wins, but after this much good football, bad football is coming. It happens to everyone except for Alabama. Last year's dominant Ohio State team was a two-point conversion away from losing to Maryland. There's always games where things go wrong.
And that's OK! Keep building, keep growing. Regroup, try to attack Iowa after the bye week.
No, I'm not emotionally hedging. At least I'm not intentionally emotionally hedging. I've checked myself and I don't think that's what this is. I just look at stats and remember where we are right now.
Here, go click on this tweet. It's a chart put together using a bunch of different NERDstats (SP+, FEI, etc). Offensive yards per play we're... second to last in the Big Ten West. Defensive yards per play allowed we're... last in the Big Ten West. Success rate on offense? If you look at the entire Big Ten, there are three teams in the red across the board: Illinois, Northwestern, and Rutgers. Defensive success rate? There's a clear bottom five: Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, and Maryland.
(41-37 at the half? 11 point lead down to four? Please don't lose to Grand Canyon the game after GCU lost at home to a Division II school.)
Yes, SP+ is the stat I was quoting this week to say "51st in defensive statistics! It's a Festivus miracle!". We're signifcantly improved across the board. We had to get there, and we have. It's just that in the Big Ten, we're still near the bottom. I do think that top-25 kind of statistics are possible next year with all the players we have returning (go from 90th best team in 2018 to 50th best team in 2019 to 20th best team in 2020), but it's still 2019 and we're playing Michigan State on the road and that means we should probably be 15 point underdogs.
Now, we do match up fairly well I think. They're missing players - their star center is out so Jamal Milan should have a field day - but I'm still not sure how we could keep this game close, let alone win. I think we'll really struggle to move the ball and will need two more more turnovers to flip the field. We rode a lot of emotion at home to move the ball against Michigan and Wisconsin's defenses, but on the road, I'm not sure we'll move the ball very much against Michigan State's defense.
So as much as I'd love to sit here and predict a win (I mean, I'm going to the game, and I'm sitting in the stands, not the pressbox, so I'd do just about anything to see a win), I just can't see it. We're improved. I don't think we're beat-MSU-on-the-road improved. They're still stinging after having to run the at Ohio State, at Wisconsin, home for Penn State gauntlet in October. Now they get Illinois, and they're coming off a bye week, so I feel like they might flex their muscles a little bit.
Which is OK! We'll regroup and then get after Iowa.
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10