Looking at the schedule back in August, Michigan State-Illinois was not a game many people would have guessed would pit a pair of 2-6 teams against each other.
When the teams meet on Saturday, they’ll bring identical records to the field, along with losing streaks and injury problems that might make them look a lot alike.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and Illinois leader Lovie Smith even sound a little alike in diagnosing their seasons so far.
“Obviously, we’re not where we thought we would be at the beginning of the season,” Dantonio said. “We are playing a lot of young players, going through some injuries, different things of that sort.”
Smith offered similar thoughts on his team this week: “We want our team to play to the best of its ability every week. That hasn’t happened. … We’ve won two games. That’s who we are right now.”
Michigan State (0-5 Big Ten) and Illinois (1-4) have some key differences, too. Here are some things to keep an eye on when they meet Saturday:
Neither team is settled at quarterback.
Illinois starter Wes Lunt hasn’t played in almost a month and second-stringer Chayce Crouch is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Smith doesn’t discuss injuries ahead of a game, but there is a chance that redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. will see his third straight start. He was 16 of 34 for 56 yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s loss to Minnesota, modest numbers but an improvement from his first start at Michigan.
The Spartans lost Brian Lewerke to a broken leg against Michigan, leaving them with fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry.
While Michigan State has an edge here in experience, Dantonio doesn’t sound so sure.
“The quarterback position is a little bit in flux there, I would say. When the quarterback situation is in flux whether due to injury or production, you know, there’s going to be inconsistency,” he said.
Both Illinois and Michigan State rely on the run, and their production is remarkably similar — the Illini average 163.1 yards a game, the Spartans 163 .
But there are differences, and they favor MSU. The Spartans ran the ball for 217 yards last Saturday against Michigan, a defense that’s giving up just over half that on average and is ranked second in the Big Ten. When Illinois went to Michigan two weeks ago, the Illini managed just 77 yards on the ground.
Other aspects of their games against Michigan illustrate the differences between the two-win teams.
The Illini, in George’s first start, lost 41-8. They trailed 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and were never in the game. The Spartans were down by 17 at halftime but pulled within a touchdown in the fourth quarter before falling 32-23.
“I think we’ve had an opportunity to win every single game we’ve played,” Dantonio said.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The loser on Saturday will have no possibility for six wins, bowl eligibility and will finish with a losing season. For Illinois, it would the fifth losing season in a row. Michigan State hasn’t had a losing season since 2009.
Former NFL coach Smith is in his first season at Illinois, hired to rebuild the program. But he spent part of his week denying that there was any truth in an ESPN.com report based on anonymous sources that he’s unhappy enough at Illinois to leave after a single season.
“Am I happy right now with where we are? No, no one on our football team is happy where we are right now,” Smith said. “My time in Champaign, it’s a little bit bigger that just where we are right now.”
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP