Running game critical as No. 16 Illinois welcomes Michigan State

Ranked 16th in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season released this week, Illinois has a chance to somewhat avenge its only loss of the season on Saturday when it hosts Michigan State in Champaign, Ill.

The Fighting Illini are unbeaten in nonconference and conference games within the Big Ten West Division, but their lone game against a Big Ten East opponent was a 23-20 loss at Indiana in Week 2.

Michigan State is the second opponent from the Big Ten East for Illinois this year, and doubts about the Fighting Illini stacking up against the ballyhooed East remain.

Illinois has erased plenty of doubt this season and capitalized on opportunities in becoming one of the nation's most surprising success stories.

The Fighting Illini (7-1, 4-1) have won six straight since the loss to Indiana and sit atop the Big Ten West, one game ahead of Purdue, which will visit Champaign on Nov. 12.

The No. 14 ranking in this week's AP Top 25 Poll is the highest for Illinois since 2007, and it is ranked by the CFP Committee for the first time ever.

"I think our team will enjoy being talked about," Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said. "It will be awesome to speak of it. But we're into Michigan State. We're into what we can do. We want to play Michigan State as strong as we can play them and let the cards fold as they are."

The defense has been the big story for Illinois. The Fighting Illini defense has allowed 8.8 points per game this season.

The style of play feeds perfectly with running back Chase Brown leading the nation in rushing with 1,208 yards for Illinois, which is coming off a 26-9 win at Nebraska on Saturday.

While Illinois has been one of the country's most pleasant surprises, Michigan State has been the complete opposite as one of the country's biggest disappointments.

At the start of the season, the Spartans (3-5, 1-4) were where Illinois is right now -- No. 14 in the country.

But struggles along the offensive line and secondary has led to Michigan State losing five of its last six games. The latest defeat was a 29-7 rout at rival Michigan in a game marred by a postgame fight in the tunnel that led to the suspension of four Michigan State players.

While apologizing for the incident and talking about the suspensions on Monday, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker also did his best to make sure his team switched its focus to playing a ranked opponent on the road.

"We're choosing to move forward and work every day to get better in everything that we're doing," Tucker said. "There's no other choice to be made in how we proceed. That's how we are going about our business."

Michigan State is 0-3 on the road this season.

This will be the first meeting between the teams since 2019.

Illinois has won the last two meetings against the Spartans: 31-27 at Champaign in 2016 and 37-34 at East Lansing in 2019.

--Field Level Media