Sunday, February 25, 2024

Smith grabs interception, seals game

Urbana-Champaign, Ill. - Eric Smith might have stepped over the line Saturday, but head coach John L. Smith isn't mad at him.

"We'll let him keep his last name for one more week," coach Smith joked.

The sophomore strong safety stretched out as far as he could to reach the end zone after intercepting the ball but mistakenly stepped out of bounds. He said he was a little upset after not getting into the end zone.

"I didn't know I stepped out of bounds," he said.

Smith's first quarter pick - his second of the season - was the turning point for the Spartans against the Illini. Without it, No. 15 MSU (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) may not have had such an easy time defeating Illinois 49-14.

Coach Smith said the game had been a "dogfight" up to that point, but Smith's interception won the game for MSU.

"I think that was the play that turned the tide and sealed the deal," Smith said.

Senior quarterback Jeff Smoker also said the turnover was big for the Spartans - a play the team has benefited from all season.

"That was huge for us to once again not turn the ball over on offense and our defense to get turnovers," Smoker said. "That's like the No. 1 key in winning football games."

The Illini (1-6, 0-3) had just enjoyed a successful series against the Spartans, scoring a touchdown and then forcing MSU to punt. The orange and blue - faithful, few and scattered throughout Memorial Stadium - were just starting to come alive.

But as Illini quarterback Jon Beutjer began to step forward and release the ball, Smith pounced on his chance to shut up the crowd and shut down the home team.

"I just read his eyes," Smith said. "I think it kind of killed their momentum and it got us going, too."

After stepping out at the two-yard line, the MSU offense took over for Smith, as junior running back Tyrell Dortch leaped over his offensive line and into the end zone on a fourth and one.

Yet Smith wasn't done with the Illini, continuing to harass them.

He finished the game leading all tacklers with 13 stops - seven solos - and also recorded the longest sack of the game (7 yards). For the fourth straight game, Smith has led the MSU secondary into complete domination of the opposition's passing game.

Throughout the afternoon, Smith was sprinting across the field to stop receivers from turning and taking off with the ball, but managed to remain humble and businesslike after the game.

"I was playing every play as hard as I could," Smith said. "Whether I've got to run across the field or just come up and fill the hole."

Jon Malavolti can be reached at malavol2@msu.edu.

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