CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Standing at the podium in a dank, hole-in-the-wall press room, complete with dingy ceiling tiles, florescent lights and a drooping Big Ten Network backdrop and buried in the depths of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, head coach Mark Dantonio knew what his team had done.
A week after sleepwalking through a 14-0 victory against Purdue, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook and the Spartans came alive on the road, spreading the offense all over the field and routing an overmatched Fighting Illini team, 42-3.
It was a game where the Spartans (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) stood tall and dominated every type of way, certainly as good or better than at any other point this season.
Cook set a school-record with a .938 completion percentage, fighting through heavy winds to complete 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. Junior running back Jeremy Langford rushed for his third-consecutive 100-yard game, finishing with 104 yards and two touchdowns. Even the defense, who’s been highly touted all season, came up with an incredible goal-line stop in the second quarter, setting up an improbable 15-play, 99-yard scoring drive for the offense.
Now, the Spartans have increased their lead in the Big Ten’s Legends Division, a result of their win and Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota, and have set themselves up to take a shot at the Big Ten Championship Game with four games to play.
Who would have thought MSU would have the best chance of any team not named Ohio State to play for a Big Ten title? Coming off a 7-6 season and wrought with a heap of quarterback controversy, very few would have put them in this position.
Yet, here they are. And given that the Spartans take on in-state rival Michigan for the 106th time this weekend at Spartan Stadium, there are few places they’d rather be at this point of the year.
“We’ve handled some adversity,” Dantonio said. “That’s the thing that is impressive to me. We’ve remained pretty resilient as a football team. We’ve played very well away from home, really since 2010. You know our guys sort of come together, and we are confident when we go away.”
The win sets up a major showdown with the Wolverines (6-1, 2-1) in a game loaded with postseason implications.
A win puts the Spartans even further ahead in the Legends Division, allowing MSU to sit in the driver’s seat when heading to Nebraska the following week. However, a loss flip-flops MSU and U-M, giving the Wolverines the tie-breaker if the teams finish with identical records.
And not to mention, it’s Michigan. It’s “Little Brother” and “Pride Comes Before the Fall.” It’s T.J. Duckett catching the game-winning touchdown in 2001 during Clockgate. It’s Braylon Edwards rallying the Wolverines over MSU in three overtimes in 2004 and Larry Caper returning the favor for the Spartans in overtime in 2009.
Finally discussing the famed rivalry on his Sunday teleconference after deflecting a question about it Saturday, Dantonio said the Spartans know what’s on the line when playing Michigan, and he elects to embrace every aspect of it.
“You know who your rivals are as you go through whatever football team you’re at,” Dantonio said on Sunday. “I’ve always chosen to embrace it. It’s there; why ignore it? It’s important to your program and to everybody surrounding your program. I’ve always embraced it, and I’ve always challenged our players to do the same.”
The matchup is set and the stakes are high. They always are. You expect it.
Now more than ever, courtesy of a big win in Illinois, the Spartans are ready for a game that could propel them even closer to a Big Ten championship.
Dillon Davis is a State News football reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.