I think very few of us expected this Michigan State team to be 7-0 at this point. While the schedule was set up for a perfect start through seven games, those of us that have been Michigan State fans for a while (since 2009) have seen this team's tendency to drop the inexplicable game, or games in last season's case. Couple this traditional apprehension with a game against the Illini who have looked much better than most fans thought they would be, and the dread was ever present. The first half did nothing to assuage my fears as Michigan State trailed 6-3 after the most frustrating half the Spartans played all year. However, as MSU has done consistently this season, a strong second half with several big plays paved the path to a 26-6 victory over the Illini.
More, after the jump.
If Michigan State's first half could be summarized in a video game stage, it would be the Turbo Tunnel in BattleToads. For those of you not familiar with the game that caused 9-year old Pete Rossman to fling his NES controllers across his bedroom, this stage consisted of controlling one of your characters (Zitz was my favorite) on a "turbobike" across the screen, avoiding barriers and jumping over gaps when need be. Michigan State hit quite a few barriers on offense yesterday. Barrier the first - the Illini frequently stuffing Le'Veon Bell (22 yards on ten carries) and Edwin Baker (23 yards on eight carries). Barrier the second - Kirk Cousins having iffy accuracy and decisions, throwing over his receivers' heads on at least two occasions, making more than one throw into coverage, and muffing a snap on 4th and 1. Barrier the third - Keshawn Martin muffing his second punt of the year, giving the Ilini a field goal to go into halftime up 6-3.
Like I said, the first half was frustrating, but not without its bright spots. The MSU defense kept Mikel Leshoure mostly in check (86 yards on 23 rushes), and in a brilliant bit of foreshadowing for the second half, got an interception from Marcus Hyde to stop an Illini drive. Aaron Bates's second punt was one of the best/luckiest punts I've seen this year - a 60 yard kick that bounced and rolled to a stop on the Illini 1-yard line. Dan Conroy completed a 37-yard field goal. This concludes the Spartan bright spots from the first half.
Michigan State greatly improved its performance after halftime. A Johnny Adams interception gave MSU the ball on the Illini 16, and four plays later the game was tied at 6. After an Illinois three-and-out, State finally seemed to take control of the game. A couple Keshawn Martin runs set up a 48-yard touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham, one where Cousins took advantage of an overly aggressive Illini defense (to be fair though, the defensive pressure worked for Illinois most of the game) to find Cunningham wide open.
From there, Michigan State cruised. The one big play the Illini hit was negated by a great strip and fumble recovery by first-time starter Darqueze Dennard. The Spartans scored on all five of their second-half drives and gained 248 yards in doing so. Greg Jones posted stats befitting of the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, with 14 tackles, one quarterback hurry, and a pass breakup when Illinois was in the red zone. Tyler Hoover played his best game as a Spartan with nine tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. Lastly, I don't know if there's anyway to prove this, but this might be the first time in Michigan State history that each of the defensive backs accounted for a turnover.
The Michigan State Spartans are currently 7-0, ranked 8th in both the Coaches' poll and the AP poll. When the BCS rankings are premiered tonight, SB Nation site BCS Evolution predicts Michigan State will enter at #7. The mood currently being felt is giddiness - giddiness over the present (7-0 WOOOOO) and the future. With Ohio State's loss yesterday, the Spartans now control their destiny for the Big Ten title. The next six weeks are going to be hell - in the sense that it's going to be a hell of a time and a hell of a ride. Get psyched everyone.