A few Illinois thoughts
After reviewing the tape...
For MSU, Tyler Hoover was the story with his nine-tackle performance and first sack, but Kevin Pickelman, Jerel Worthy, Johnathan Strayhorn, Colin Neely and surging freshman Will Gholston all had moments. Corey Freeman is coming on as well.
* Martez Wilson left a mark twice on Cousins. Wilson hit Cousins low in the first quarter, and Cousins was limping around on his left ankle for the rest of the day. Also in the first, Wilson drove Cousins into the ground, and it looked for a few minutes like Cousins might have a shoulder issue. He stayed in and eventually had a huge second half, but late in the first quarter he had six coming at him, including a corner blitz, and he rushed a back-foot throw that sailed over a wide-open Mark Dell. Illinois had him thinking for a while.
To MSU's credit, it switched to more three-step drops in the first half, some quick-hit plays with B.J. Cunningham posting up in a soft spot in the zone and moving the chains. A good adjustment.
* The final results were great for MSU's defense, but Illinois found a way to convert five passing third-down situations in the first half, in a variety of ways. And after Aaron Bates put the punt of the year at the Illinois 1, the Illini ran the same play off left guard three times in a row to Mikel Leshoure to get a first down. MSU's linebackers were blocked every time.
Later on that same drive, A.J. Jenkins split Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde for what could have been a 70-yard touchdown but Nathan Scheelhaase threw too long. The drive continued and it could have been a major boost to Illinois and a major downer for MSU.
But it ended with the first of MSU's three interceptions, courtesy of Hyde. The first interesting thing about that play is that MSU stuck with its 4-3 base personnel rather than go with its "30" defense (which right now has Gholston, Strayhorn and Corey Freeman rushing), even though it was third and 7. No nickel back. Greg Jones and Eric Gordon blitzed on the play, and MSU went into Cover 3 with Hyde moving up to replace the vacated LBs. He read Scheelhaase all the way and made the easy pick. Scheelhaase must have been confused by something.
* MSU then couldn't get a yard on three straight plays. That fourth-down fumble, by the way, was the "fake fumble" play that MSU ran successfully with Brian Hoyer in the past, but Cousins dropped it as he was trying to "rub" it on the ground. And Charlie Gantt was wide open downfield.
* Keith Nichol got more involved in the offense and made a great catch on the sideline, which was overturned because his foot was on the line. Still, some encouraging signs from him.
* The play of the game was the Darqueze Dennard strip of Jenkins on the post route. Watching the replay, it looks to me like Jenkins' knee hit just before the ball popped out, but I can understand how it wasn't overturned. There wasn't one perfect view of the play among three angles.
* Three straight key defensive plays in the fourth quarter. Hoover comes with a bull rush, then a swim move to the inside and sacks Scheelhaase. On the next play, Dennard is called for pass interference, he made a nice recovery and batted the ball away with no contact, but he was face guarding (and no, that's not a violation on its own, but refs see it and often assume contact and throw the flag). Tough call there. Then Hoover, after getting a one-play blow, goes outside this time, blows past the right tackle and smashes Scheelhaase. I hope for Scheelhaase's sake the hit affected the throw. It flutters right into Robinson's arms. And I liked to changes tenses in the middle of paragraphs.
* Just as MSU's defensive effort was not perfect, its running game was not without success. The Spartans ran the ball 11 times for 57 yards in the fourth quarter, compared with 20 attempts for 36 yards in the first three quarters. Larry Caper was one of the reasons. I was surprised Edwin Baker didn't get more carries and asked if he was banged up, but Don Treadwell said it was just the way they were being rotated. If I had to guess, I'd say the superior pass-blocking of Caper and Le'Veon Bell limited Baker's reps.
* Gholston looks different now than he did three weeks ago. What will he look like three weeks from now? Next season? If a true freshman is already able to overpower Big Ten offensive linemen at times, and he has the kind of speed Gholston has, I'll wager he's going to be pretty good.
* Bold prediction: Illinois wins five of its last six games to finish 8-4 and gets a good bowl game out of it.