Oct. 26, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
The prevailing wisdom in the first half of the season was: If Michigan State's offense could just pair an average performance with the Spartans' dominating defense, good things could happen.
Few had the foresight to envision what MSU would look like if it played exceptionally well on both sides of the ball at the same time.
Those who did saw Saturday's 42-3 wipeout at Illinois coming all along, while the rest are left to recalibrate their tea leaves and crystal balls.
Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense may not have overshadowed their defensive counterparts, who more than lived up to their nation-leading bona-fides once again, but they stood side-by-side in the sunshine of Champaign, Ill. And now the Spartans are all alone atop the Legends Division with a 4-0 Big Ten record going into next Saturday's showdown against Michigan.
Cook, who was so erratic a week earlier in the 14-0 victory over Purdue, showed he's coachable by building on his strong finish against the Boilermakers. In response to co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner's constant plea for consistency, Cook set a single-game MSU pass completion record by completing 15-of-16 (.938) for 208 yards and three touchdowns.
"I would describe it as comparing night to day," said Cook while referencing his 13-for-25, 107-yard effort seven days earlier. "I thought we ran the ball really, really well against Purdue, but we passed the ball very poorly and that was all because of me. I was inaccurate on a lot of throws that I usually make.
"It really upset me and I took it personally because I felt like I let my teammates down, and there's no worse feeling than that. We won, but solely because we have a great defense. So, I fixed things I needed to fix during the week and came in prepared, believing in myself and my teammates, and trusting my offensive line."
Just as Cook's subpar week of practice carried into the Purdue game, a productive work week translated into success for him this time around.
"Based on that, we felt like he would rebound and play real well," Warner said. "He was on the money and there were a few instances when his receivers helped him out, but I thought he made good decisions in the pass game and threw the ball very accurately.
"To say he rebounded would be an understatement, but this is something we can settle in on and hope he plays like this consistently. Our defense has been lights-out and today we sort of complemented each other. That's Coach (Mark) Dantonio's master plan, and we just need to continue it."
The Spartans didn't exactly get off to a great start. The defense allowed the Fighting Illini to take a 3-0 on their game-opening drive, which covered 53 yards after what would have been touchdown pass was negated by a holding penalty.
Then, after the defense squashed Illinois' second possession with a ferocious pass rush, Cook drove MSU into scoring position, only to fumble the ball back to the Illini at the goal line.
From that point, the defense and offense started pulling the rope in unison, one hand over the other.
The Spartans got the ball right back when defensive end Shilique Calhoun sniffed out a reverse, stripped the ball out of Ryan Lankford's hands and defensive end Marcus Rush recovered at the Illini 37-yard line. Four plays later, tailback Jeremy Langford put MSU ahead to stay, 7-3, with a 1-yard touchdown run. Langford would go on to finish with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries for his third 100-yard rushing performance in as many games.
The turning point came over the course of the next two possessions. Illinois, with the help of 17-, 27- and 8-yard passes by Nathan Scheelhaase, made to the Michigan State 1-yard line. However, on third-and-goal, safety Isaiah Lewis and end Denzel Drone stuffed a trick play involving a between-the-legs handoff from behind to Josh Ferguson for no gain. Then, middle linebacker Max Bullough, with an assist from cornerback Darqueze Dennard, completed the goal-line stand by stopping Jon Davis in his tracks up the middle.
Cook began what would be a 99-yard scoring drive with a 3-yard sneak. He ended it with a 29-yard touchdown pass that made it to wideout Bennie Fowler in the end zone after ricocheting off the hands of two Illini defenders with nine seconds remaining in the first half.
Cook gave himself some time to perform a risk assessment by scrambling toward the right sideline before letting the ball fly.
Some will say Cook was lucky; he called it a gamble worth taking given the potential reward.
"That was just me, knowing what Bennie is capable of and counting on him, even though he had two guys on him, to make this play, and he did," Cook said. "I knew that there were only nine seconds left, too. If Illinois picked it off I don't know that they'd come away with points, but it would have prevented us from kicking a field goal.
"It was a risky play and in hindsight, maybe I should have thrown it out of bounds or in a safer spot, but you live and learn. You have to pick your spots to take risks like that, and it resulted in a touchdown, so you can't ask for more than that."
Said Fowler, "There's nothing wrong with just throwing the ball up and trying to get some points out of it, and it worked out for us. Connor wanted to show that he's a poised leader on this team and he can make all the throws, and that's what he did. His percentage was great, we had a big day on the ground and the defense did what they always do, so it was a good team win."
The momentum generated by the goal-line stand and ensuing 15-play, eight-minute drive carried on through halftime and into the second half. The Spartans surged to a 21-3 lead on Cook's 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, Langford's 7-yard TD run made it 28-3 and Cook's career-long 47-yard pass to wideout Keith Mumphery resulted in a 32-point advantage on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Spartans ended up with 269 yards on the ground while Illinois' high-octane offense, which was averaging 35 points a game, rushed for just 25 yards against the MSU defense. The Spartans also gave up just one first down in the second half and seven in the first.
Cook said the excellent play of the offensive line made everything possible, but guard Blake Treadwell wasn't surprised by the way he responded.
"He's always had great confidence in himself ever since I can remember and whenever he makes a mistake, I've always seen him bounce back," Treadwell said. "So, I expected it. It's our job to make him feel comfortable, and we're glad we could make him feel comfortable, so he could make those great throws like we saw. After that first series, things really started to click. Sometimes it's hard for me to explain to people, but I definitely felt like we were in a zone.
"Early in the season, things were a little rocky, but in camp we showed flashes of what our offense can do, so we always had confidence in our ability to perform like this in a game. The main thing now is to just keep improving every week."
Cook never backed off his weekly claims that the offense was laden with talented players who could be very good, even though they weren't always reflected on the field. He was gratified by the confirmation the offense got against Illinois.
"I feel we had turning points early on and then against Iowa and Indiana," he said. "Then we came out and were flat against Purdue. We all know that no matter who we're playing, we have to treat it like it's do-or-die, because when we do that, I don't think anybody can top us.
"It feels great to win a game like this on the road and it's going to propel us for our game against Michigan."