Michigan State at No. 16 Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — One team in Saturday’s matchup at Memorial Stadium is starting to gather national attention after its best start in 20 years, is ranked higher than it has been in 15 seasons and is ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time in program history.

But that is not the team in this matchup that seems threatened to be distracted in the first Big Ten game of November.

Illinois football is the surprise story in the Big Ten in 2022, Bret Bielema’s second season as head coach as the Illini are coming off their best October in 32 years with a 7-1 (4-1 Big Ten) record and just back-to-back wins away from clinching the Big Ten West title and a spot in the Dec. 2 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

Michigan State, the surprise story in the Big Ten a season ago with an 11-2 record in Mel Tucker’s second season as head coach, has been the most disappointing team in the Big Ten as the Spartans are 3-5 (1-4 Big Ten) overall after beginning the season No. 15 in the AP Top 25.

On top of underwhelming play on the field, Michigan State is dealing with turmoil off of it. Eight defenders, including a few key starters and multiple more rotation players, so far have been suspended indefinitely after several Spartans attacked Michigan players in the tunnel following a 29-7 loss in Ann Arbor.

Tucker was so consumed with the aftermath of the melee that he hadn’t watched a minute of Illinois film as of Monday afternoon, though he’s tried to get his team to focus on another football game.

“We’re laser-focused on Illinois,” Tucker said. “That was a big part of our message (Monday) morning. As always, what’s most important is what we do next. We’re focused on Illinois and we’re gonna prepare every day the best we can.”

Michigan State will be short-handed against an Illinois team that has dominated its schedule so far. Though Illinois has not beaten a ranked opponent yet and lost to its one Big Ten East opponent (23-20 at Indiana on Sept. 2), the Illini have dominated opponents with better showings so far than Michigan State, winning at Wisconsin 34-10, beating Iowa 9-6 without its starting quarterback, blitzing Minnesota 26-14 and winning at Nebraska 26-7. The Illini have been businesslike in their approach.

The Spartans players will try to find a way to match that despite a turbulent week.

“Obviously it’s a unique situation,” MSU quarterback Payton Thorne said. “Obviously the season hasn’t gone how we had hoped and how we had planned, but we’re all we got in the room. No one is coming in to help us, no one is coming in to save us. It’s all of us moving forward together, and if we decide to start separating, it’ll all unravel and nothing good will happen for anybody. We’re focused on sticking together, moving forward.”

MSU defensive back Xavier Henderson added: “A unique situation, but we gotta stick together as a team.When your back’s against the wall, I always try to tell these young guys this, I’ve been in positions – I went 7-6 my first two years here, but there was no quit in those dudes. There was some real Spartan Dawgs on the team, real leaders like Khari Willis, Joe Bachie. They understood that we weren’t in the position, when I was younger, that they wanted to be in, but those guys didn’t care, those guys loved playing football.

Meanwhile, Illinois hasn’t seemingly looked ahead all season. So despite a huge game coming next week against Purdue that will likely determine the Big Ten West champion, the Illini have seemed focused on the Spartans, no matter who suits up.

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