After a decisive win at Penn State, Illinois has some confidence and, perhaps, some swagger heading into a game at Michigan State. The Spartans are the only team in this week's top 25 poll among the Illini's final seven opponents.
CHAMPAIGN -- Basketball practice begins around the country Friday, but a ballyhooed hoops season at Illinois might have to take a back seat for a few weeks.
Illini football is climbing back toward relevance.
By dominating Penn State in a 33-13 victory Saturday for the first win in seven tries in Happy Valley, Illinois (3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) grabbed some momentum, and more attention, heading into a road game against No. 13 Michigan State (6-0, 2-0) Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
Q: How big is this game for the Illini?
A: Illinois faces the toughest test in the final seven games. Michigan State is the only remaining opponent in this week's national rankings. If the Illini get something done in East Lansing, they could really get rolling in the second half of a season that began with low expectations. Illinois already played respectably in a loss to Ohio State, which moved up one place to No. 1 in the top 25, and the Illini don't face No. 15 Iowa or No. 18 Wisconsin.
Coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning made a strong impression in the spring, and both sides of the ball keep improving weekly. With key players edging closer to full speed after time on the disabled list, Illinois has a little swagger heading to Michigan State. A decisive win over Penn State, a perennial power that was hobbled with injuries and suspensions, should help.
“Hopefully, it carries over a lot of confidence,'” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We’re good enough, if they do the things you’re coached to do and play the way you’re capable of playing. We played the No. 1 team in the nation pretty well. We haven’t gone backwards. We’ve gone forward. We have to keep building on that.”
Illinois already is halfway to bowl eligibility.
Q: Can Terry Hawthorne increase his workload against Michigan State?
A: The sophomore cornerback logged 10 to 12 plays late in the fourth quarter against Penn State, getting on the field for the first time this season after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
“He’ll hopefully be ready to go,'” Zook said. “You don't want to work him in too fast.”
Zook didn’t plan to rush Hawthorne into duty as a return man too soon, even though the Illini need an experienced playmaker back there. Zook wasn't ready to pull Jack Ramsey as a returner after Ramsey fumbled a kickoff return and dropped two punts at Penn State.
Wide receiver Eddie McGee didn't start. Despite not yet returning to 100 percent from a sprained ankle, McGee played 28 snaps after seeing limited duty against Ohio State the previous weekend. He caught one pass for three yards against Penn State. Fullback-tight end Zach Becker is cleared to play by doctors following a stress fracture in his foot, and it’s a matter of how much pain he can endure, Zook said.
A team that lacked depth and left scrambling because of injury just before the start of the season, Illinois would greatly benefit from the return of three starters.
Q: What's the first impression with Michigan State?
A: Michigan State doesn't have a star like rival Michigan's Denard Robinson, but the Spartans might be too good to be called the league’s sleeper. The Spartans rolled past Michigan 34-17 Saturday to win three straight against the Wolverines for the first time since the 1960s.
Coach Mark Dantonio told his team by cell phone from his hospital room they had the Paul Bunyan Trophy and planned on keeping it. The Spartans then rushed for 249 yards -- the fifth time this season over 200 yards -- and compiled four plays over 40 yards from scrimmage. Michigan State also intercepted Robinson three times.
After missing the previous two games, Dantonio coached from the press box Saturday, remaining on the field for the coin toss and greeting his team in the corner of the end zone following the win. He underwent surgery to place a stent and clear a blockage following a mild heart attack last month, then Dantonio returned to the hospital last week because of a blood clot.
“When I sent him a note after (the surgery), I told him I’d see him at the 50-yard line,” Zook said. “I figured he’d be there.”
Michigan State and Ohio State are tied for the league lead. Unfortunately, they don't play each other this season.