Michigan State looks to keep momentum going against Illinois
This week might be the real test for No. 13 Michigan State.
After defeating rival Michigan 34-17 last Saturday for its first three-peat against the Wolverines since the 1960s, Michigan State (6-0 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) hosts Illinois (3-2, 1-1) in a Big Ten Conference football game Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network). The Spartans, who have won 10 of the last 11 meetings with the Illini, will need to bounce back as quickly as their coach did after a heart attack.
With the Spartans one of the last two undefeated teams from the Big Ten, everyone is watching if Michigan State will rebound from the emotional win.
"It speaks to the maturity of our football team in terms of how you're able to take every single game and place it as the most important game in the season,'' said Spartans coach Mark Dantonio. "After two big wins, with some fruits of our labor with the rankings and those types of things, it's about, 'What are we going to do next?' ''
Under Dantonio, the Spartans are 2-0 ever year after playing Michigan. After wins over No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 18 Michigan, Michigan State has victories over top 25 teams on back-to-back weekends for the first time since 1974. Michigan State is 6-0 for the first time since 1999 and hasn't been 7-0 since 1966.
Illinois won in Spartan Stadium in 2006 for coach Ron Zook's first Big Ten victory, but the folks in a green and white are concerned this is a trap game for the Spartans, who must have some big ideas.
"With Michigan State not playing Ohio State this year, they've got their sites set on some big things,'' Zook said.
The Spartans already survived a heart-stopping win over Notre Dame and Dantonio's mild heart attack, but Dantonio's health issues haven't slowed Michigan State. He underwent surgery to place a stent in a blocked artery in September hours after Michigan State's 34-31 win over Notre Dame, when Dantonio called a gutsy fake field goal that resulted in the winning touchdown in overtime. Dantonio then missed the games against Northern Colorado and Wisconsin.
He returned to the hospital because of a blood clot in his leg. Dantonio said this week he's trying to ease himself back into it, and he wants to be with his players as much as possible. He can't walk the sidelines in a game until he can walk a full three-hour practice, and Dantonio said his legs still get weak, so it's unsure if he will be on the sidelines or sitting in the press box on game day.
"My heart is bouncing back,'' Dantonio said. "I feel very good. I've toned things down. I'm easing back into things. As far as the blood close in my leg, that continues to get better. It's important that I recognize that I not overdo things. I will listen to my body and take it step by step.
"I'm just easing back into things. The football time, I spend part of it at home, watching film or whatever, and part of it in the office. I'm just trying to be as normal as possible in terms of being around our players.''
Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins ranks fifth nationally in passing efficiency (149.9) and ninth in completion percentage (63.8). Michigan State running backs Edwin Baker (683 yards, six touchdowns) and Le'Veon Bell (549 yards, eight touchdowns both rank in the top 50 nationally.
Linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon have combined for 684 tackles in their career, the most for an active duo in the nation, but Michigan State must overcome the suspension of Chris L. Rucker, who was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Freshman Darqueze Dennard will take his place.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
A look at Michigan State
Record: 6-0 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten
So far: Def. Western Michigan 38-14, def. Florida Atlantic 30-17, def. Notre Dame 34-31 OT, def. Northern Colorado 45-7, def. Wisconsin 34-24, def. Michigan 34-17.
Coach: Mark Dantonio, 28-17 in fourth year at Michigan State, 46-34 in seventh year overall.
Players to watch: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, LB Greg Jones, S Trenton Robinson, P Aaron Bates.
Did you know? This is the second straight week Illinois serves as a homecoming date.
Quote: "The message we have to send to our players: We're at the halfway point. We're not 10 games into the season. We've got an edge in terms of the success we've had. We need to build on those things.'' -- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.