Champaign, Ill. — A week ago, some were wondering if Michigan State had taken a step in the wrong direction.
Its defense was typically solid in a win over Purdue, but the offense struggled — in particular, the passing game — and the Spartans managed just one offensive touchdown against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten.
One week later, all of those concerns seem to be a distant memory.
Quarterback Connor Cook set a Michigan State completion-percentage record, completing 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) to a dominating, 42-3 victory Saturday over Illinois in front of a homecoming crowd of 45,895 at Memorial Stadium.
It was the sixth-best completion percentage in Big Ten history and Cook finished the game with 11 straight completions, but it was just a single aspect of one of Michigan State's most complete performances in a long time. The Spartans rushed for 269 yards with Jeremy Langford carrying 22 times for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns, his third straight game going over the 100-yard mark.
And rarely lost in any Michigan State game is the play of the defense. Saturday was no different as the Spartans held Illinois (3-4, 0-3) to just 128 total yards, well below its average of 446.2 yards a game. Michigan State also held Illinois to 25 yards rushing and one first down in the second half.
"Outstanding job by our football team," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Great job by our defense; obviously in the second half we played very, very well. Cook obviously played very well and spread the ball around when we did throw it and involved three running backs. I thought all three did an excellent job, and obviously it means our offensive line is playing well."
But the focus on this one has to be the play of the offense that managed 112 yards passing in the victory over Purdue and had some asking if they could score enough to keep up with a fairly potent Illinois offense.
"Yeah, I think we answered that pretty well," Cook said. "I think the whole offense was clicking — the pass game, the receivers were catching it downfield, getting yards after the catch, the running backs were running hard, the offensive line was blocking well in the pass game and run game. We were able to get in a groove early and things just kept clicking."
It did take a little time for things to click — on both sides of the ball.
Illinois went 53 yards on 12 plays to open the game and took a 3-0 lead on a 31-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski. However, it wasn't long before the Michigan State defense started imposing its will.
Early in the second quarter, it produced the big play that sparked the entire team when Shilique Calhoun forced a fumble on an ill-fated reverse and the ball was recovered by Marcus Rush. Four plays later, Langford scored on a 1-yard run to put the Spartans ahead, 7-3.
The Illini came right back, getting all the way to the Michigan State 1-yard line but were stuffed on two straight plays, turning the ball back over to the Spartans.
"It was huge because we kept points off the board because of the fact it was fourth down," said linebacker Max Bullough, who teamed up with Darqueze Dennard to stop running back Jon Davis on the fourth-down play. "We really hadn't been able to build momentum on offense or defense up until that point and it was a springboard for the rest of the game."
With 99 yards of the field staring them in the face, the offense proceeded to put together one of its best drives of the season, going the length of the field in 8:08 and finishing with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Bennie Fowler.
While the drive itself was impressive, the end was bizarre.
Michigan State had moved to the Illinois 15 and faced a first down, but two straight sacks left them at the 29-yard line, the clock ticking down on the half. Cook then scrambled to his left on third down and fired a pass near the goal line and into double coverage.
Illinois defensive back Jaylen Dunlap got his hands on the ball, but it bounced in the air and Fowler grabbed it as he fell back into the end zone for a touchdown, giving Michigan State the 14-3 lead with nine seconds to play in the half.
"That was me just counting on Bennie and Bennie being capable of making a play like that," Cook said. "If I just put it out there, he can make something out of it. It was me having faith in him and he made an amazing play."
Michigan State kept on rolling in the third quarter, going 75 yards on 10 plays on the half's opening drive to take a 21-3 lead. Langford did the bulk of the work on the ground before Cook capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price.
Langford added a 7-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to make it 28-3, and the Spartans opened the fourth quarter with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Keith Mumphery to extend their lead to 35-3.
Freshman Delton Williams tacked on the final points when he scored on a 42-yard run midway through the fourth quarter. He gained 78 yards on just five carries while Nick Hill ran 13 times for 70 yards.
It was a performance that had Illinois coach Tim Beckman searching for answers.
"I've been around college ball a long time and they have got a very, very good defense," Beckman said. "The first half, you've got to score. We can't have a penalty negate a score. You can't not score when the ball is inside the 5-yard line. You've got to score touchdowns. We have to do that as an offensive football team. We can't let teams drive 99 yards and have stupid penalties. … The last three teams we've played have only lost one Big Ten game. They're pretty good football teams."
And it appears now that Michigan State has proven just how good it can be, sitting alone in first place of the Big Ten's Legends Division.
"Good things are happening," Dantonio said. "We have a nice foundation. We're 7-1 and more importantly are 4-0 in the conference and sit on top in the Legends. We've got a strong defense, our offense is coming, we run the football and have got balance. We've got to take care of business, but we'll take it one game at a time."