Saturday’s 26-6 Michigan State victory over Illinois certainly doesn’t fit the mold ofÂ a perfect game. But in this instance, it was good enough. For the seventh straight weekend, these Spartans have come out on the proper end of the box score, and that should not be overlooked by any fan.Â In fact, on Saturday MSU reminded us all of this team’s strengths.Â
Michigan State showed that even on a less-than perfect day, they can still scratch and claw for a victory,Â a traitÂ that will be essential asÂ they move further into the depths of the Big Ten race.Â In what has traditionally been a “trap” game for Michigan State teams, the early signs didn’t look promising. The Spartans were effectively stymied by a surprisingly physical Illinois rush defense, who held them to just 4 yards on the groundÂ in the first half. But, as has been the case all year, Michigan State showed tremendous resolve in rolling up 23 unanswered second-half points, while at the same timeÂ silencing early-game doubts about their legitimacy.Â
On a day where the Spartans were outgained on the ground and outpossessed in terms of offensive field time, they did all the little things necesary to win. They received four field goals from freshman Dan Conroy, who now sits at a perfect 13-for-13 on the season. With his effort on Saturday, Conroy surpassed the best statstical start by an MSU placekicker in school history, shattering Paul Edinger’s previous high of 10 consecutive makes to open a season.Â
Kickoff coverage alsoÂ put forth perhaps its best effort of the season, as Kevin Muma showed nice distance in sending several boots into the endzone. ThisÂ gave Â Michigan State a distinct advantage in terms of the field position battle. As the season wears on, seemingly minor things like extra points, field goals,Â and return coverage could make all the difference should Michigan State find themselves in a tight contest.Â
Aside from a nice special teams effort, MSU was particularly impressive in terms of their second-half adjustments on offense. Kirk Cousins made more comfortable throws from the pocket and also on the run, and the play-action calls that have been a staple of this team worked fairly well. Cousins also delivered the game’s only passing touchdown, a well-placed 48-yard strike to B.J. Cunningham. In the offensive backfield however, few changes were made at the half and in typical Dantonio fashion, Michigan State re-grouped at intermission….and proceeded to batter the Illini down after down.Â Â They made particularlyÂ effective use of the three-headed monster that is Larry Caper, Edwin Baker, and Leveon Bell. While none of the trio’s stats were anywhere close to impressive (Caper led the way with a whopping 37 yards), the physical toll that it took on the Illini could be felt throughout Spartan Stadium.Â
On defense, the Spartans filled another notable statisical ledger. With four takeaways, they surpassed last season’s total of 14, while also doubling their 2009 interception total (fromÂ six last year to 12 so far)Â in the process of picking off three passes. Marcus Hyde and Trenton Robinson in particular have matured significantly following last season’s struggles, and even Chris L. Rucker’s replacement, Darquez Dennard, limited big plays by Illinois.Â Michigan State also held the Illini toÂ three points Â from the four-yard lineÂ early in the game,Â and kept RB Mikel Leshoure and QB Nathan Scheelhaase in check.Â Most importantly, Â theyÂ againÂ displayed a bend-but-don’t break mentality, which will be crucial when facing potentially dangerous offenses.Â
The individual achievements by each of these units are surpassed, however,Â when you consider MSU as a whole. They now sit at 7-0 for the first time since 1966, and they got there on a day when they were held to season lows in rushing and total yardage. They got there on a day when they totaled a meager four first-half rushing yards. And they got there on a day when theirÂ field generalÂ was leading the way from the Spartan Stadium press box, and not the sidelines.Â Â
Even when some pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit quite right, Michigan State still came out on top. Now just imagine what’s possible when everything falls into place.