Tyler Hoover. For me, MSU's best defensive player on Saturday: he had 9 tackles (two of which were stops for no gain), and his first sack of the season. He did an excellent job containing Scheelhaase's attempted scampers, and was particularly dominant on Illinois' first drive of the fourth quarter, where he sacked Scheelhaase, hurried him on another play, and stopped Mikel LeShoure for no gain. Between Hoover's performance and the sporadic positives from William Gholston, MSU had more production from the left side of the defensive line than we've seen all year.
Darqueze Dennard. Very, very impressive in not only his first start, but his first substantial playing time of the season. Unlike other freshman cornerbacks we've seen recently <bwahaha>, he was never obviously beaten in coverage, and came up with the game's single-biggest play by stripping A.J. Jenkins of the ball -- and then recovering the fumble, even though it had bounced a fair distance away -- when Illinois was driving to tie the game. Stepped up enormously and eased our worries considerably about the possibility of Rucker's continuing absence.
The rest of the secondary. Dennard deserves special praise because of his unique circumstances, but this was another strong game from Trenton Robinson, Marcus Hyde, and Johnny Adams. Hyde and Robinson were beaten on one play where Scheelhaase, thankfully, overthrew A.J. Jenkins. Aside from that one miscue, the secondary was outstanding once again, and Hyde, Robinson, and Adams each came up with an interception. The emergence of Adams, in particular, probably has more to do with the defense's improvement this season than any other single factor.
Dan Conroy, Kevin Muma, and Aaron Bates. In a game when MSU's offense struggled for long stretches, Conroy and Bates were absolutely key. Conroy hit all of his field goal tries again -- ho hum at this point, amazingly. Bates bombed a 60 yard punt on the drive immediately following when Illinois took the lead, which was downed at the 1 yard line. Muma hit 4 of his 7 kickoffs for touchbacks. Swenson may be gone, but this is the best MSU kicking game in years, and perhaps ever.
Larry Caper. On a day when Illinois made running the ball very, very difficult, Caper made several huge plays in the fourth quarter to help MSU put the game away. The great 15-yard touchdown run is obvious. But he ran off consecutive plays of 11 and 12 yards to help MSU convert a 2nd-and-15 earlier in the quarter, and then ran the ball to the cusp of the endzone on 3rd-and-goal from the 7. Happily, the rumors of his Caper's demise in the MSU offense were greatly exaggerated.
Ken Mannie. For the second straight week, MSU vastly outplayed its opponent in the second half, and I suspect that some of the credit goes to the strength and conditioning coach. Mannie doesn't enjoy the same level of notoriety that OMGBARWIS has in Ann Arbor, but so far this season, MSU has had the better of the physical matchups against Wisconsin, Michigan, and to a lesser extent Illinois. Some of that's tactical, but there's little doubt that quite a bit of it is strength.
More, after the jump.
MORE BIGGIE THAN SLAPPY
Kirk Cousins. The stat line (13-24, 201 yards, 1 TD) isn't the prettiest of Cousins' career, and prevents him from getting the full Biggie. But there were certainly mitigating circumstances: Cousins was under enormous pressure throughout the first half. I consider making it out of the half without throwing an interception a major victory for him, and he avoided making poor throws. In the second half, the protection improved somewhat, but cousins still only went 7 for 12 in the half (although one of the the completions was the spot-on 48 yard touchdown to B.J. Cunningham). So, not his best day, but certainly not his worst either. Encouraging stat: Cousins has now gone 10 quarters without turning the ball over
The offensive line. Utterly pwned by Corey Liuget and the rest of the Illinois defensive line for the entirety of the first half. Cousins took shot after shot and honestly, we're incredibly lucky that he avoided getting hurt. The running backs had nowhere to go. As SpartanDan said, the play of the left side of the line was particularly dire. Things became slightly better after the half but it was still nothing to write home about. This has been a pleasant surprise all season long, but if they play like this against Iowa it's gonna get uuuuugly.
Keshawn Martin. Quiet day on offense (1 catch for 9 yards, 3 rushes for 18 yards) and the muffed punt at the end of the first half was brutal. Utterly incompetent clock management by Ron Zook ensured that the mistake would result in only 3 points, but we may not be so lucky next time around. Yes, Martin occasionally does brilliant things in the return game. (See: Wisconsin, obvi.) But, to steal a phrase: CATCH THE DAMN BALL.
As always, award your own Biggies and Slappies in the comments.