As you contemplate over Illinois' performance after its first five games, they have by far exceeded the expectations of everyone across the country.
Coming into Week 7, not a single person would have expected Illinois to be 3-2 and look like a team that has the potential to be among the top teams in the Big Ten.
But, here we are, two days before Illinois' sixth game of the season, and they are sitting at 1-1 in conference play and looking to upset the Michigan State Spartans on its Homecoming Week.
Just like Illinois, Michigan State has gone far beyond everyone's expectations and is arguably one of the most underrated teams in the country.
With six games already complete, Michigan State is sitting at 6-0--tied for first place in the Big Ten--with big wins vs Notre Dame, vs Wisconsin, and at Michigan.
If one is to quickly look at the Illinois vs Michigan State game coming up, it would appear as if Michigan State should be able to win this game and possibly with ease.
They are running and passing the ball effectively, and their defense continues to look impressive. They have taken down two ranked opponents, and help Heisman candidate, Denard Robinson, in check at the Big House.
And their opposition, Illinois, is a young team standing at a record of 3-2, whose victories came against two non-BCS opponents and an inexperienced, injury-ridden Penn State team.
But, do not count out the Fighting Illini quite yet.
Even in Illinois' two defeats against ranked opponents--Missouri and Ohio State--they have been competitive and had the opportunity to win in both games.
So before you automatically give Michigan State a victory, understand that Illinois will not go away quietly, as they have proved so far this season.
Illinois will have to execute on all aspects on the game, and here are my five most important keys to Illinois being able to pull of the upset.
1-Run the Ball Effectively
Being able to run the ball has been a strength at Illinois ever since Ron Zook took over the job in 2005. Even when his teams were the worst in the Big Ten, rushing was always the strength.
And Zook has been able to keep that tradition alive this season as his junior running back, Mikel LeShoure, has been the backbone of the offense.
On 104 rushes, LeShoure has 597 yards on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards a carry. He has had 100 or more yards in every game against Ohio State, one of the best defenses in the country.
Behind LeShoure, Jason Ford and Troy Pollard have shown that they are capable of running the ball aggressively and picking up good yardage.
Illinois must establish a running game early and often against Michigan State on Saturday. It is necessary that they give the ball to LeShoure and get him going.
If the Illini are able to run the ball effectively, it will take the pressure off redshirt-freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has progressively improved by each week.
2-Don't Make Offense Too Predictable
One thing that I have noticed so far this season is when our offense is struggling to move the ball, the play-calling will often get very predictable.
With a young quarterback still trying to develop trust in the coaching staff, it is noticeable that Paul Petrino does not always have complete confidence in Sheelhaase, so he converts to running it on the early downs and relying on the pass on third down.
This predictable play-calling was most noticeable against Missouri and Ohio State. First and second down would often be a run, then a pass play would be called on third down.
Against Michigan State, Illinois must be able to establish the runnning game, but do not be too predicatble with what play will be called. Petrino will need to vary up passing and running plays by passing it more on first and second down, which will also help the running attack by keeping the defense guessing.
3-Control the Time of Possession
Illinois' offense would not be considered an explosive threat to many, because they often struggle to put big points on the board.
They only put 24.4 points per game, which ranks 81st in the nation. They have a strong running attack, but the passing game has held them back from reaching their full potential.
This is not the case for the Spartans.
Michigan State has had a very strong offense this season, averaging 35.8 points per game, which ranks 22nd in the nation.
Therefore, when Illinois does not put up a great deal of points and Michigan State does, it is essential that Illinois keeps the Michigan State's offense off the field.
If they can keep Michigan State off the field, it will take tremendous pressure off the Illinois offense and put more pressure on Michigan State's defense to stop Illinois.
It may lead to a low scoring event, but that will be necessary if Illinois hopes to compete with the Spartans.
4-The Defense Must Stand Its Ground
If you had told me that Illinois' defense would be one of it's strongest attributes coming into the season, I would have called you crazy.
But, to the surprise of many, the defense has been arguably the main reason Illinois has had so much success so far this season.
The defense--ranked 20th nationally in total defense, allowing 304.8 yards per game--will have their hands full going against Michigan State's offense.
As mentioned earlier, the Spartan offense has been dominant this season, averaging 35.8 points a contest.
Much of this is credited to Edwin Baker (683 yards) and Le'Veon Bell (549yards), who have carried the ball very productively for Michigan State this season.
Michigan State's rushing attack is ranked 14th nationally, rushing for 225 yards per game.
But, I have confidence that Illinois will be able to stop their rushing attack, forcing Michigan State to rely on junior quarterback Kirk Cousins to led the offense.
My confidence is due to Illinois' success on stopping rushing attacks so far this season. It has been obvious that the defenses' biggest strength is stopping the run, and they proved this last Saturday when they held Penn State's Evan Royster to 35 yards on 11 carries.
If the Spartan's rushing attack is contained, I feel much more confident that the Illini will exit East Lancing with a victory.
5-Continue Special Teams' Dominance
Special teams was another point of concern heading into the season, but Ron Zook has proven many of us wrong, as special teams is taking a large part in Illinois' success.
Most of this special teams' dominance is attributed to junior punter, Anthony Santella.
Santella is the second-ranked punter in the nation, averaging 47.9 yards per punt on 24 punts. Nine of his 24 punts have been 50 or more yards, and six have landed inside the opponents 20-yard line.
This week Santella was named to Rivals.com Midseason All-American Team.
Field position will be a very important aspect in this game, making Michigan State start its possessions deep in its territory will be a boost to Illinois' defense.
It not only makes Michigan State have to drive much further to get down the field, but it takes pressure off the defense.
Santella has done a fantastic job helping the Illini win the field position battle, and he must continue to do that again this week to help Illinois' chances.
Before we give all the credit to Santella, we must not also look past the incredible kicking of Derek Dimke.
Dimke is 10-11 this season (90.9%), and his season long is 52.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!