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It’s the middle of November and Illinois can still win the Big Ten West

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The fate of the Big Ten West appears to largely be a two-team race between frontrunner Minnesota and perennial division contender Wisconsin. But there is still a mathematical chance the Iowa Hawkeyes can take home the division crown. To make that happen, Iowa will have to hand Minnesota its first loss of the season tomorrow afternoon in Kinnick Stadium to keep hope alive. But there is one more team in the division that still has a mathematical chance to win the division, and they actually have more scenarios that could potentially pan out in their favor than Iowa.

Say hello to the Illinois Fighting Illini. That’s right. With three weeks left in the regular season, Illinois can still win the Big Ten West this year. Who would have predicted that at the beginning of the season?

Lovie Smith already has the program heading to its first bowl game since 2014, the first with him as the head coach, but why stop there? Let the Illini dream big, er… B1G?

Yes, Illinois would need some help from the rest of the division, but here is how Illinois could win the Big Ten West:

Scenario No. 1

  • Illinois wins games against Iowa and Northwestern
  • Iowa beats Minnesota
  • Purdue beats Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin beats Nebraska and Minnesota
  • Northwestern beats Minnesota

Scenario No. 2

  • Illinois wins games against Iowa and Northwestern
  • Iowa beats Minnesota
  • Wisconsin beats Purdue and Minnesota
  • Nebraska beats Wisconsin
  • Northwestern beats Minnesota

Minnesota is undefeated after their win against Penn State but faces Iowa on the road this weekend and closes out the regular season against Wisconsin, and the Badgers would love nothing more than to spoil things for the Gophers after losing Paul Bunyan’s Ax in Madison last season. The biggest hurdle may be asking 1-8 Northwestern to take out Minnesota, but the Illini would be eliminated from the race entirely if Minnesota wins either of their next two games against Iowa or Northwestern.

Want to know all of the different division-clinching scenarios that are still in play for the final three weeks of the season? Then check out this Reddit post breaking down all of the combinations still out there. And you better believe that includes the mess that is the ACC Coastal Division. Enter at your own risk.

Contradicting Mark Dantonio, Michigan State says QB Brian Lewerke was checked for concussion vs. Illinois

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It’s not often that a school comes out firing to directly contradict their head coach on a subject but we’ve long since passed normal at Michigan State this season.

In the wake of the team’s dreadful collapse against Illinois last week, starting QB Brian Lewerke took a knee to the head from a defender and then subsequently was planted on the turf while trying to make a tackle the next play — after he threw an interception that was eventually turned into a momentum-swinging pick-six. The signal-caller told reporters after the game that he got his bell rung but he still stayed in the game.

While that sequence should have prompted Lewerke to go through the standard concussion protocol, head coach Mark Dantonio said at his Tuesday press conference that neither trainers nor coaches thought about pulling him from the game to do that because the player himself said he was fine despite the hits.

“Just I asked him and he said he’s good, and he motioned that to our trainers, as well, so he just went on with it,” Dantonio said.

That, however, is not exactly what happened and the general disregard seemingly shown over putting Lewerke through proper protocols prompted the university to issue a statement later on Tuesday clarifying the situation.

“The safety of student-athletes at Michigan State University is our No. 1 priority. Decisions on whether a player returns to competition after potentially suffering an injury are made by our medical staff, which does not report to our coaching staff or through the Athletics Department,” Michigan State health care chief medical officer and interim director of athletic medicine Dr. Anthony M. Avellino said in a statement released by the school. “Upon returning to the sideline late in the fourth quarter with under five minutes remaining in the game, Brian Lewerke was given a symptom assessment by our medical staff. After not showing signs of a concussion, he was cleared to play.

“As a precautionary measure, Brian was given further testing the following day, and was once again determined not to have a concussion.”

It’s good to know that the signal-caller didn’t get a concussion on the sequence in question but it was still a little bizarre to hear the head coach of the team imply that standard procedures were skipped simply because Lewerke said he was good. Almost all college football programs have a spotter in the press box to keep an eye on hits that may lead to players going through the protocol in addition to trainers on the sidelines.

It sounds like the Spartans did follow through with doing everything they should have but it does appear as though the head coach was the last to find out about it. It’s understandable that Dantonio might have gotten caught up in the heat of the moment of an epic collapse against the Illini but to not have his story straight three days later is a bit concerning.

At least the head coach knows his job isn’t in jeopardy from the incident (or others) because more than a few others in his position would not get quite the kind of pass that Dantonio gets on such a serious subject in college football nowadays.

Illini’s second-leading receiver ruled out for rest of season

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Illinois’ hopes for the return of a productive piece of its passing attack have officially been dashed.

On the first play of the Oct. 19 win over Wisconsin, Ricky Smalling went down with an unspecified knee injury.  The issue had sidelined the junior wide receiver for the past three games.

Tuesday, head coach Lovie Smith confirmed that Smalling will miss the remainder of 2019 as well as the receiver recently underwent what will turn out to be season-ending surgery.  Smalling’s absence will include a bowl game.

Despite missing each of the past three games, and most of a fourth, Smalling is still second on the Illini in receptions (24) and third in receiving yards (225).

The Illini currently sit at 6-4 on the season and are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014.  A seventh win would be their most since 2010; an eighth would give them their most victories since Ron Zook won nine in 2007.

Day after AD says Mark Dantonio is safe, Michigan State blows 21-point fourth-quarter lead in loss to Illinois

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Well, that’s one way to thank your boss for his very public vote of confidence, I guess.

Friday afternoon, amidst speculation about his head coach’s hold on the job, Michigan State’s athletic director made it very clear that the seat on which Mark Dantonio sits isn’t even remotely warm let alone hot.

That is not even a discussion,” Bill Beekman said when asked if a dismissal was a possibility. “Mark’s our head coach, there’s no question about that.”

Less than 24 hours later, and after going up 28-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan State held a 28-10 halftime lead on Illinois that the Spartans stretched to 31-10 at the start of the fourth quarter.  Over the next 15 minutes, however, Sparty was outscored 27-3, with the Fighting Illini heading back to Champaign with a stunning and historic 37-34 win.

The last of those 27 points came on a five-yard pass from Brandon Peters, who threw for a career-high 369 yards in the win, to Daniel Barker with just five seconds remaining in the contest.

As mentioned in the tweet above, the Illini are now 6-4 and bowl-eligible.  It’s the first time they’ve hit six wins in Lovie Smith‘s four seasons and the first time they’ll go bowling since 2014.

For MSU, it continues a disturbing downward spiral for the program under Dantonio, regardless of the positivity coming from the head of the athletic department.

In February of 2016, MSU announced that it had reached an agreement on a revamped contract for Dantonio, currently in his 13th season in East Lansing, that pushed his annual guaranteed compensation to north of $4 million. Since that extension, which came off of three straight 10-win seasons and four in five years, the Spartans have gone 24-23, including a 4-5 record thus far in 2019.

Per that contract signed nearly four years ago, Dantonio will be due a $4.3 million bonus if he’s the Spartans head coach on Jan. 15 of next year.

After the game, though, the 63-year-old Dantonio had a very interesting response to a question about his future.

Illinois will be without LB Jake Hansen for Michigan State game

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Earlier this week, Jake Hansen was named as a semifinalist for the 2019 Butkus Award.  Unfortunately for the linebacker, his candidacy to become a finalist for the honor has gotten off to a rough start.

Illinois announced ahead of this afternoon’s game against Michigan State that Hansen will miss the contest because of an unspecified injury.  The junior didn’t even travel with the rest of his teammates to East Lansing.

According to head coach Lovie Smith, he’s hopeful Hansen, who will have a bye next weekend to help the healing process, will be available for Illinois’ next game against Iowa in Week 13.

Hansen currently leads the nation with seven forced fumbles and ranks second in the country with three fumble recoveries.  He’s also second on the Fighting Illini in tackles (72) and sacks (3½), while his 7½ tackles for loss are good for fourth.