Spartans top Illini, 42-3
CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Connor Cook was at a crossroad.
Coming off an underwhelming passing performance in a 14-0 victory against hapless Purdue, the sophomore quarterback spent the week answering questions of whether he had regressed, or perhaps if the offense ever actually progressed in the first place. A tedious and tiring project, Cook stood in defense of a team once briefly met with praise on the offensive side of the ball, knowing one play could turn the tide.
But nothing was certain. He’d have to prove it.
Facing 3rd-and-25 after back-to-back sacks Saturday against Illinois, experience dictated Cook and the Spartans were destined for a field goal — set to head into the locker room with a four-point lead and a handful of question marks.
Instead, Cook rolled to the right and lobbed a desperation pass to senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler, floating off the fingertips of two Illinois defenders and finding Fowler for a 29-yard touchdown. Pure elation.
It was a moment indicative of the growing ability of the sophomore signal caller, responding to criticism the only way he knows how: brash, unapologetic confidence.
“Early on, I just wanted to throw completions, get into a rhythm and my offensive line allowed that with the protection I had,” Cook said. “The play that made me feel like I can do something, I can find a rhythm, it’s the play at the end of the half when I hit Bennie for the touchdown.”
Cook was 15-for-16 passing for 208 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Spartans (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) to a 42-3 victory over the Fighting Illini (3-4, 0-3). Junior running back Jeremy Langford rushed for his third straight 100-yard game, finishing with 104 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns in a winning effort.
Head coach Mark Dantonio said Cook knew where he needed to improve following the game with the Boilermakers, reassuring his coach after the game with a brief remark, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
“Connor got better,” Dantonio said with a smirk. “When you’re a young player, you have the chance to sit back, regroup, reestablish yourself and move forward. He’s got tremendous talent. He was off throwing the football a little bit last week but you know, he’s able to regroup himself and move forward.”
Fighting Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski capped the first drive of the game with a 31-yard field goal to put Illinois ahead, 3-0.
After Langford took six consecutive carries on MSU’s second offensive possession, rushing for 39 yards and moving the Spartans near the goal line, Cook fumbled on the seventh carry of the drive, handing the ball back to the Fighting Illini.
Yet, one fumble deserves another, as five plays later, sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun blew up wide receiver Ryan Lankford on a reverse run in the backfield, forcing a fumble recovered by junior defensive end Marcus Rush.
“They put me in a great position to make those types of plays – not only the coaches, but the other 10 players that’s on the field with me,” Calhoun said. “They’re wreaking havoc on their part and doing what they’re so I try to do my best out there.”
On Cook’s next pass from scrimmage, he found redshirt freshman Jamal Lyles for an 18-yard reception, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Langford to take the lead.
The game’s most impressive drive ending in a Cook touchdown pass to Fowler started in dangerous territory.
After driving the length of the field, the Fighting Illini lined up with a 1st and goal on MSU’s five-yard line, almost certain to score and shrink the lead. However, the Spartans held quarterback Nate Scheelhaase and the offense out of the end zone with a stop on fourth down, ending the threat and setting Cook back up with the ball.
“We knew they were going to come with the ball quick and line up and try to overpower us, and we had seen it on film, so we were just lined up and we knew what they were doing,” Bullough said. “As long as we played downhill, we would be fine.”
The Spartans proceeded to drive the ball the length of the field, nickel and diming a drive spanning 99 yards on 15 plays.
Looking to close out the first half, Cook’s touchdown pass to Fowler came with 19 seconds to play, making it a two possession game at the half. But Cook hardly was done there.
Cook led a 10 play, 75-yard drive to open the third quarter, capping it with a 13-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman tight end Josiah Price to extend the Spartans’ lead to 21-3.
Asked what the biggest difference between a lackluster finish against Purdue and a standout showing on Saturday, Cook said the offense played with great focus, largely a result of balanced play calling and solid execution.
“It was great play calling,” Cook said. “The run, too, helped out a lot, with play-action passes and just opening up the pass game because we were able to run the ball so well.”
Handing the ball to the rushing attack on the next offensive drive, freshman running back Delton Williams and Langford split carries before Langford rumbled into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown, flexing his biceps in celebration.
And yet, the Spartans still weren’t done flexing.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Cook completed a 47-yard pass to junior wide receiver Keith Mumphery for a touchdown, only furthering a collective offensive explosion.
With a sighting of senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell in the fourth quarter, the Spartans orchestrated yet another scoring drive, as Williams took a carry to the right and sprinted 42 yards to the house, increasing a sensational lead to 42-3.
Maxwell and redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler O’Connor received playing time before running the clock out to send the Spartans away with a victory.
“We’re 4-0, which is where we wanted to be. But we’ll worry about (Michigan) tomorrow,” Dantonio said. “All of our focus is really on the present. Let’s have a good time on the bus and plane ride home, and we’ll take care of business tomorrow.”