Spartans Survive Illini Surge, Hold off Illinois at Homecoming, 26-6

Jonathan Schopp

Mr Perfect Dan Conroy is one of the Big reasons the Spartans on on their way to the top ten and stand 7-0.  Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.
Mr Perfect Dan Conroy is one of the Big reasons the Spartans on on their way to the top ten and stand 7-0. Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

In hard fought and relatively difficult matchup with the revitalized Fighting Illini, MSU did just enough when it counted most to hold off Illinois for their 7th win of the year, 26-6. In an often sluggish and heavily penalized contest, (most of them earned) MSU found a way to grind another one out to continue brewing this season towards something rather special. Though this one didn’t flow or excite like the last two entertaining Spartan victories, these Spartans passed their first major maturity test. Spartan Football now stands at 7-0 for the first time since 1966. I guess these are the “Same Ole’ Spartans.”

The 1st Half was nearly all Illinois. The Fighting Zookers came out and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Illinois chased Rs.-Jr. QB Kirk Cousins all over the field early on and knocked him to the ground somewhere around 10 times. On the other hand, the Illinois front seven owned The BBC (Spartan Running Back Firm of Fr. Le’Veon Bell, So. Edwin “Rock” Baker, & So. Larry Caper) early and temporarily shut down the whole operation, holding them to only 15 yards on 9 carries for the Half.

In hardly the most exciting Half of the year, the Spartan Defense had to work to keep MSU from falling too far behind. Mission accomplished. And if anything, the 1st Half again proved just how competitive the Big Ten is right now. The 2009 and 2010 seasons look to be the best for the Big Ten as a whole in about a decade.

Credit Illinois though, they probably played harder than MSU in the 1st Half. Illinois is a 3-3 football team now, but the teams they’ve lost to have yet to collectively lose even 1 game. If not today for a key Illinois turnover on their drive which started at their Goal Line and had progressed into MSU territory, the score would’ve probably been more lopsided at the Half.

New Illinois Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning got the better of Don Treadwell’s Offense for that Half, holding MSU to a net total of 4 yards on the ground (11 carries), and 77 yards of total offense. The Spartans easily could’ve been down by 10 or more going into the 3rd Quarter. Credit the MSU Defense for doing enough to keep the Spartans in the game after a relatively sluggish and difficult start.

Rs.-So. DB Johnny Adams woke up the Spartan Nation just a couple minutes into the 3rd Quarter with an INT of Illinois’ Fr. QB Nathan Scheelehaasse on a 3rd and 7 inside Illini territory. The Spartans took it from there and got back the 3 points they lost after the Jr. Keshawn Martin punt-return-fumble late in the 2nd, to even it up at 6-6.

On the Spartans’ next possession, the ball really began to move a bit, and Cousins found a hole deep in the Illini Defense when he hit fellow Rs.-Jr. B.J. Cunningham for the pull-ahead 48 yard TD pass, 13-6. Cousins can throw the deep ball with a touch and accuracy that should help give him a shot to play on Sundays in a few years. On that play, once Illinois blew the coverage, there was little doubt the deep pass would end up as 6 points for the Spartans.

The game remained tight from there until youth again caught up with Illinois. Fr. DB Darqueze Denard, who started in place of the suspended Sr. Chris L. Rucker, made possibly the play of the game mid-way through the 3rd Quarter. Denard was beaten for a catch on a deep ball which had the Illini inside the 20, but then ripped it out of Illini WR A.J. Jenkins’ grasp after the ball was secured. Denard kept playing after the strip, however, and chased after it as the ball squirted towards the MSU sideline. After Jenkins and Spartan Jr. S Trenton Robinson (who also an INT in the 4th) dove past the loose ball, Denard scooped it up to complete one of the Defensive plays of the year for MSU. Not your typical play from a true Freshmen DB.

From there, the MSU Offense captured the momentum of the third Illini turnover to complete a demoralizing 68 yard drive which set up Conroy for his 3rd Field Goal of the day. As the 3rd Quarter wound down, MSU was suddenly ahead 16-6, and pretty much all of the air had been drained from the Halftime Illini balloon. The Spartans' poise and resolve had begun to shine through.  The Defense had done their job early in keeping MSU in the game, and the Offense stepped up throughout the 3rd to begin to put Illinois away.

The 4th was again all MSU as the suddenly unstoppable Spartan Offense tacked on 10 more points, while the Defense turned Illinois over one more time. At the end of the day, the scoreboard read 26-6. It was not always pretty, and it definitely was not always easy, but the 2010 Spartans are now a 7-0 football team.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The Spartan Offense was not stopped once in the 2nd Half today. That is a stat you can win a lot of games with. Yet, the BBC was handled very well by Illinois overall. Give the Illini credit, they held Bell, Baker, and Caper to a combined 73 yards on 25 carries, the team to only 114 total, on 31 attempts. In the end, those could very well end up the lowest rushing totals of the year.

Yet, MSU kept trying to pound it throughout the day, and did utilize The BBC’s talents again through the air by featuring a crafty screen pass to Caper (which set up So. PK Dan Conroy’s 4th Field Goal of the game), and a 14 yard pass to Le’Veon Bell. Caper continues to get back into the flow, and will no doubt be counted on heavily if MSU is again going to play for the Big Ten title into November. For the day, Caper had a decent mix of 6 carries for 37 tough yards, and also the screen pass reception for 12. Caper’s tight rope walk to the end zone with 2:35 left put the final cap on his momentum building effort.

Kirk Cousins survived today, as he got pressure from all sides and all angels in a solid 13/24, 201 yard and 1 TD performance. Cousins' effort was highlighted of course by the big deep ball to Cunningham. He's progressed somewhat from the earlier games of the year in which he made some mental errors that cost MSU yards and points. The great news for Spartan fans is that there remains room for Cousins to get even better, and one day be considered among the nation’s elite QBs.

Keith Nichol continues to develop as a WR, and played with some fire and pop on his day which included 2 grabs for 14 yards. The stat line doesn’t tell the whole story for Nichol though. He played inspired and lifted the team in more than a few spots as the game progressed. B.J. Cunningham and Sr. WR Mark Dell were both productive when counted on most. Cunningham caught 3 balls for 83 big yards, including the 48 yard TD bomb from Cousins.  Dell was solid as well, grabbing 3 balls for 55 yards.

Though yards were tough to come by on the ground today, MSU did get the ball in the red zone a bunch. However, the Spartans ended up settling for Field Goals probably a few more times than they would’ve liked. No doubt, Red Zone Offense will be a bigger focus moving forward. It should be crucial as the Conference race tightens up from here.

Defense

The Defense was tested today, and stood up tall in holding Illinois to only 6 points for the day. The stat that stands out, and probably won MSU the game, was forcing 4 Illini turnovers. That’s another stat you can win a lot of games with. Without those turnovers, this might have been a game that MSU lost. But the key Defensive difference from 2009 was again evident as playmakers like Johnny Adams proved this is a better Defense in Green.

The Spartans were borderline dominant on D at times, and continued to make progress up front and on the backline. Spartan Nation saw the impact and promise of some of its youngest players today, as players like William Gohlston and Darqueze Denard flashed the kind of game that holds a lot of promise for the Defense’s future. Though Illinois is clearly a young and developing Offense, the Spartan DBs were again in positions to make plays, and madethem again today to secure the “W.”

This Defense is improving rapidly, and legitimately appears to have finally turned the corner. In each of the three straight Big Ten victories, you can clearly see the signs of a Defense that is becoming more confident by the Quarter. When’s the last time that Spartan Nation has held two straight Big Ten opponents under 17 points?

The Defense will be tested and stretched yet again next week at Northwestern, but likely has the athleticism in the Linebacker and Defensive Back depth chart to contain the Wildcats pesky “dink and dunk” attack. It doesn’t look to be easy though, as a rested and freshened Northwestern should be ready to play. Another Big Ten opponent, and yet another unique test for the MSU Defense.

Special Teams

Coming into the season, the Spartans’ kicking game was perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. Now three games into Conference play, it appears to be amongst this team’s strongest units. The kicking trio of Bates, Conroy, and Muma has now clearly solidified their roles and continued to progress. Bates bombed two punts today for 100 yards, Muma was strong off the kicking tee, and Conroy was once again, perfect “for three.”

Place Kicking at Michigan St. is a position with probably a higher standard than any in the program. Not only do you have to follow the best kicker in the history of the sport (Morten Anderson), you have to follow the Edinger’s, Rayner’s, and Swenson’s that kicked before you. Conroy is up to the challenge, so far. He didn’t really need much time to thrive in the role of closing out victories. After all, Conroy scored 14 points on his own foot today, single handily out scoring the Fighting Illini.

Overall

Spartan Football is now in unfamiliar territory, but should be able to handle it. Their start isn’t so shocking that it wasn’t conceivable that they’d be 7-0 here heading west to take on Northwestern. Unlikely? Yes. But impossible? No. That fact should make MSU much less likely to deflate emotionally, or suffer one of those ugly and dreaded letdowns. Northwestern has been a thorn in the Spartans’ side in the past, and enjoyed a bye to get that much more ready for next Saturday. The Spartans should expect a passionate and clean effort from Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch in purple.

For all intents and purposes, MSU now has a Bowl bid firmly locked in for 4th straight year. That shouldn’t be completely over looked. Once again, “Same Ole’ Spartans.” Bowl trips have become the expectation and norm around East Lansing, which is a fundamental sign that the Dantonio poured foundation was done so in the right way.

The pride of the Spartan Nation should be booming today. We’ve seen this type of game in past years, and the Spartans have frankly lost more of them than they should have over the years. But today, MSU took the game over in the 2nd Half and finished off a respectable Illinois team by 20. That’s maturity, and that's the look of a team that continues on a special mission to earn back some much needed respect.

As we discussed many times last year, you are what your record says you are. Today, the 2010 Spartans are very proud 7-0.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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