Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Great Green Hype

Bowl-eligible Spartans 'all business' after victory at Illinois

Senior quarterback Jeff Smoker passes the ball Saturday in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. Smoker was 23-for-31 passing for 317 yards and two touchdowns. Smoker also did not throw an interception for the third consecutive game. —

Urbana-Champaign, Ill. - On its return from pounding Illinois 49-14 Saturday, MSU left last season's disappointment in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., and leapfrogged Michigan in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

The No. 15 Spartans (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) are now undefeated in the Big Ten and tied with Wisconsin (6-1, 3-0) for the conference lead. With their sixth win of the season, they become bowl eligible, but the Spartans weren't busting out any champagne in Urbana-Champaign.

"It is a huge step, but really, it doesn't mean anything," head coach John L. Smith said.

"Bowl-oney, who cares? And that's the way we've got to approach this week."

Smith turned the Spartans into an all-business team after they finished 4-8 last season. He's trying to keep the team focusing on the big picture but not to get caught up in it.

"You got to have the dream, but the dream is one day at a time and one game at a time," Smith said.

"That dream is out there, and everybody should have that dream.

"Championship - that's our goal."

Smith said the team not only hopes to win a league championship and go to a bowl game but allow the seniors to leave as winners.

The turn-around is evident in players, especially the seniors, who now have the confidence they lacked last year after falling below expectations. Many had picked MSU to win the conference, but the Spartans finished 2-6 in the Big Ten last year.

"I think we set high goals from the beginning," senior quarterback Jeff Smoker said. "We set goals of winning the conference championship and we're going to keep it."

Smoker, who finished with 317 yards on 23-for-31 passing with two touchdowns passing and another running, said the team has adjusted to its new system and is more business-like this season.

"That's the way we try to approach road games," Smoker said. "It's a business trip.

"I think we're getting more comfortable with the coaches (and) the offense and we're just taking off with things and seemingly getting better each week."

Even in talking about the excitement about their success this season, the Spartans remain serious.

"I'm a little excited, but we can't really look at that right now," sophomore running back Jaren Hayes said.

"I'm excited about the possibility that we could go to a bowl, but we've got to worry about Minnesota."

The Big Ten likely will send seven teams to bowl games, including one that should finish eligible for one of the four Bowl Championship Series games.

All said, MSU didn't look like a team destined for any bowl game after the first 20 minutes on the road against the Fighting Illini.

Tied 7-7, the Spartans had just punted the ball to Illinois, which, on the series before, dominated the MSU defense on a eight-minute, 92-yard scoring drive.

But that's when the Spartans' secondary stepped up with an interception from sophomore strong safety Eric Smith, setting up a Tyrell Dortch touchdown.

The junior running back's first career touchdown gave the Spartans a 14-7 lead, and they never looked back. Dortch finished the game with his first and second career touchdowns.

He also earned 35 yards rushing.

MSU also got career-first touchdowns from sophomore slot receiver Jerramy Scott, sophomore wide receiver Aaron Alexander and junior free safety Jason Harmon, who recovered a fumble and returned it 52 yards to score.

The Spartans scored 35 straight points to put the Illini away for good.

MSU travels to Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) next weekend for a noon showdown Saturday in the Metrodome. The game will be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.

Jon Malavolti can be reached at Malavol2@msu.edu.

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