Well, lots of happenings happened yesterday, did they not? A fun statistical day, more or less all around. Let's dig into that.
-MSU's 13.0 yards per attempt was the second best YPA of the 82 game Dantonio tenure, and the best mark vs an FBS team.
-Yesterday was just the 11th game in which the MSU passing game posted at least 3 TDs and 0 INTs.
-15 completions in 16 attempts, was good for a completion percentage 5.8% higher than MSU's 2nd best full game mark for a QB in the Dantonio era, Cousins 22/25 performance vs Western Michigan in 2009. Full disclosure: Cousins started that game 16/17, but then, we are still making a similar comparison between sophomore Connor Cook and sophomore Kirk Cousins, which is unexpected, slightly nervous ground, but also undeniably pleasing.
Context and stuff.
So, Illinois, already a bad pass defense, was sans their top corner back the entire game. Probably worth pointing that out. Also, the biggest play of the day for the MSU passing game, the 47 yard TD to Mumphery, came when the Spartans were already up 25 points, and the second longest pass play, a 29 yard TD to Fowler was, we will say, fortuitous. So, there's some 'running up the stat sheet' going on here.
But uh, still. From the first game of the season to the eighth game, we went from watching arguably the worst passing performance of the Dantonio era to arguably the best. Connor Cook is a bungee cord and we leaped off this bridge at the beginning of the season and there was certainly, inevitably, going to be a low, a low so low that you were going to briefly believe you might just smack the surface of the water below, but after some bouncing around, eventually someone was going to drag you back up onto that bridge way up there.
This also seems the proper place for a shout-out to the wide receivers and their previously embattled position coach Terrence Samuels, as well as the tight ends and their new position coach Jim Bollman. Their performances have been light-years ahead of where they were last year, or even where they were a month ago. Drops have come down to one or two (or zero) a game, they're getting consistent open, they're often making the proper adjustment to the high ball Cook naturally throws, they're picking up yards after the catch, and they're throwing great blocks to help spring the run game. They are easily the groups that have shown the most growth from week one to eight, and I'd hate for them to get lost in all the (deserved) praise for Cook this week.
Michigan State had one run go for negative yardage, a -1 yard carry by WR Keith Mumphery. Spartan running backs had 40 carries for 252 yards (6.3 YPC) and three touchdowns, a damn fine day at the office for them and their offensive line.
In total, the MSU rushing game had 24 gains of 5 or more yards, setting up lots of easy '2nd and shorts' and '3rd and shorts' to keep drives alive. And after MSU threw a touchdown pass to go up 21-3 early in the 3rd quarter, MSU ran the ball on 26 of their final 27 plays, picking up 9 first downs and, on a 42 yard touchdown run, caused Illinois defenders to visibly give up on their home turf. A true 'Pound, Green, Pound.' performance.
But can we talk about the defense? I'm dying to talk about the defense.
Caveats: Illinois' arguable top WR was out injured the entire game. Illinois' arguable 2nd best WR left the game near the start of the 2nd quarter and now appears to be done for the year. Again, worth pointing out.
With that out of the way, the Spartans took a top-30, top 40 offense, a pretty decent simulacrum for the Wolverine offense they'll face this week, and entombed it. The Illini ran for 25 yards on 21 carries, a total only Fitzgerald Toussaint could envy, and the passing attack that powered the offense, and which had gashed a tough Wisconsin D for over 300 yards the week before, barely broke 100 yards this week.
Illinois entered the red zone once, and settled for a field goal. Then, a three-and-out and a four-and-out later, Illinois entered the red zone again and was stuffed on the one yard line. None of the remaining four Illini drives crossed mid-field.
The 42 Illinois plays were 20 less than they'd put up in any of their other 6 contests. The 128 yards were 199 less than any previous Illinois output this year. 3 points was 16 fewer than they'd scored in their previous season low vs Nebraska, and 29 fewer than they'd scored in any home contest this year.
Through eight games, just a single Spartan opponent has gained more than 275 yards, and just two teams have posted more than 230. Not only has MSU not allowed a 100-yard rusher, they have not allowed 100 yards, to any entire team.
The Illini's 128 total yards were the second fewest conceded to any Big Ten team in the 52 conference games under Dantonio, bested (worsted?) only by Minnesota's 98 yards last year.
Illinois is bad this year. But, well, 39 point road wins don't come along very often in the Big Ten, regardless of the weakness of the opponent (a 37 point victory by Nebraska over Purdue came closest this year, followed by a 24 point Wisconsin victory, also in Champaign. I believe Iowa's 16 point win @Minnesota is next best), or, more importantly, for MSU (Dantonio's previous best road Big Ten wins were a triplet of 17 point victories). MSU had two of its best performances in the last seven years on both sides of the ball and what we saw was probably something close to just how good the 2013 Spartans can be (answer: really freakin' good). But I think this game is less important as a single event, and much more important as part of an encouraging and continuing trend. More on that subject in another post.