On To The Next One
Big plays drive Spartan win over Illinois; team now looking toward Michigan
Senior defensive end Marcus Rush leaps for a fumbled ball during the game against Illinois on Oct. 26, 2013, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. The Spartans defeated the Fighting Illini, 42-3. Danyelle Morrow/The State News
CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Connor Cook was nearly perfect, and he penned his name in the Spartan football record book along the way.
MSU’s defense has been nearly perfect all season, and Saturday was no different.
The sophomore quarterback threw the punches, passing for 208 yards and three scores while completing a school record 93.8 percent of his passes (15-for-16). The defense crippled the spirit of the opposition, yielding a season-low 128 yards to the Fighting Illini.
When the dust settled at Memorial Stadium, the Spartans (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) walked away with a 42-3 win to spoil Illinois’ (3-4, 0-3) Homecoming and claim the outright Legends Division lead. Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota earlier in the day vaulted MSU to the top, setting up a pivotal clash with Michigan in East Lansing this weekend.
“We knew this had to be one of the games that we dominated to show the whole country that if you’re one of those elite teams, you beat teams by this much, by this many points,” senior safety Isaiah Lewis said. “You dominate the other team, and that’s what we did.”
One of Cook’s few flaws came late in the first quarter when he got caught peeking in the cookie jar near the goal line. MSU was looking at a 3-0 deficit after Illinois engineered an impressive 53-yard drive on the game’s opening possession.
Junior running back Jeremy Langford had rushed six times for 39 yards to the Illinois five-yard line and Cook was looking to cap the touchdown on an option play to the left. Cook found a running lane but made an overzealous dive heading to the end zone and was stripped attempting to stretch the ball across the line.
Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit tried to get fancy by calling for a reverse, but sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun destroyed the ball carrier, Ryan Lankford, forcing a fumble that was recovered by junior defensive end Marcus Rush.
With a short field ahead of them, Cook found redshirt freshman tight end Jamal Lyles for an 18-yard gain before Langford punched in a one-yard touchdown to give MSU its first lead.
The Spartans completed a punishing goal-line stand on Illinois’ next possession, shutting the Illini out of the end zone on consecutive plays from the one-yard line and sending the MSU sideline into a flurry of cheers.
“Before that we really hadn’t built any momentum, so I think that’s where it kind of all started,” said senior linebacker Max Bullough, who collaborated with fellow senior linebacker Denicos Allen for the final stop.
Cook followed it up with a 99-yard scoring drive that chewed up more than eight minutes of clock. On third-and-25 from the Illinois 29-yard line, he rolled to his right under pressure and chucked it to the end zone, where senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler was double covered.
The pair of Illini defensive backs each got a hand on the ball before it was tipped into Fowler’s hands in the end zone, giving MSU a 14-3 lead at halftime.
“I just go out there every single play and try to do whatever I can to make a play, to put our team in a situation managing a game and just trying to win a football game in general,” Cook said.
The MSU defense dug in for the final two quarters, surrendering just 18 yards and a single first down in the closing stretch.
Meanwhile, the Spartans scored touchdowns on four-consecutive possessions out of the locker room to pull away from Illinois. Langford got his second of the day and finished with 104 rushing yards, while junior receiver Keith Mumphery notched his first touchdown this year on a 47-yard bomb.
Redshirt freshman tight end Josiah Price and true freshman tailback Delton Williams each registered their first career scores, on a 13-yard pass and a rumbling 42-yard run, respectively.
Cook’s day was done early in the fourth quarter, as senior Andrew Maxwell and redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor split quarterback duties and milked the clock. With O’Connor at the helm, MSU drained the last 6:42 off the clock to end the game.
“Obviously with this play, there’s always gonna be more expected of (Cook),” Dantonio said. “You see him play like this, (there will be) very high expectations.”