For the second week in a row, the Michigan State Spartans rode a strong defensive effort to victory.
For the second week in a row, that victory came at a price. Starting running back Glenn Winston is likely out for the season after badly tweaking his knee in the second half. Back-up quarterback Keith Nichol, forced into action after Kirk Cousins sprained an ankle in last week's game, may have dislocated his non-throwing elbow toward the very end of the game. Freshman sensation Larry Caper also picked up a knock in the second half that slowed him down and limited his minutes after a stellar first half performance.
The 24-14 victory was nice, but the cost was high. Nichol is expected to be back within a couple of weeks, but losing Winston hurts.
Despite the injuries, it was another dominating performance from the defense that allowed the Spartans to continue to climb back to respectability after a 1-3 start. They held the Illini to numerous three-and-outs, and allowed only 272 total offensive yards, with a big chunk of that yardage coming in garbage time right near the end.
The Spartan defensive front created six sacks, and kept the Illini quarterback duo of Eddie McGee and Juice Williams uncomfortable all day. The two quarterbacks combined to go 9-28 with 140 yards, with 41 of those yards coming on a touchdown pass with 1:24 left in the game.
It's fitting that a great defensive effort was capped off by Danny Fortener's 45-yard pick six to start the scoring in the second half. That chased McGee out of the game and sealed things up for the Spartans.
Offensively, it was clear that the Spartans weren't at their best without Kirk Cousins. Nichol made a few nice plays, including a beautiful 30-yard touchdown pass over Caper's shoulder to set up first and goal at the one. Glenn Winston would fumble on the next play, but that doesn't detract from the pass at all.
Despite making a few good passes, Nichol also made some questionable decisions and clearly needs to improve his accuracy. On the first offensive play for the Spartans, he rolled out to his right and overthrew a wide-open Brian Linthicum by a country mile. Nichol was also intercepted after forcing a throw into triple coverage, and narrowly avoided picks on a few other plays.
Nichol would finish 13-25 with 179 yards and one interception.
Fortunately the running game more than made up for the sputtering passing attack. Caper and Winston shouldered the bulk of the load, rushing for 159 yards on 30 carries, and scoring two touchdowns. It looked like Caper was on his way to well over 100 yards until he picked up the injury, but by then the game had been decided.
The good rushing attack also allowed MSU to control the clock for the second week in a row, racking up 36:07 of possession and keeping Arrelious Benn off the field for long stretches.
It was over when...
Danny Fortener returned an Eddie McGee interception 45 yards for a touchdown to put MSU up 24-0. This seemed to break the Illini spirits, and it forced Ron Zook into a quarterback change.
Cheap shots and poor officiating
You can expect Mark Dantonio to be lodging another complaint with the Big Ten after a second straight poor performance by the zebras in a Michigan State game. They missed a couple of easy facemasks as well as a holding call on a punt that led to a touchback rather than the ball being downed inside the five.
But the non-call that takes the cake came on Nichol's injury. Watch this clip. At the 12-second mark, Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget takes Nichol's head and slams into the turf after Nichol was ruled down. That should result in a one-game suspension, especially considering that Nichol was already down and had been injured on the play.
Rating the units
Spartan offense: B-
They really struggled to move the ball in the second half, and this game would have been a lot closer if not for Fortener's pick. It's clear that the offense runs a lot better with Cousins in charge, but they still shouldn't have struggled so much to put points on the board against a team surrendering 30+ per game.
The running game did show signs of improvement, which will be a big factor as the weather starts to cool down and the Spartans get into the meat of the Big 10 schedule.
Spartan defense: A-
Six sacks, one interception and nine Illinois punts. A great job by the Spartan defense, with the only real blemishes coming in the very late stages of the game. They'll need to continue giving this kind of effort if they hope to finish the season bowl-eligible.
Spartan special teams: A
The special teams weren't terribly busy against Illinois. Brett Swenson hit a 35-yard field goal, and Illinois didn't do anything all day with their return game. The Spartans also took care to not get beaten by an onside kick at the end of the game, showing that they're learning from past mistakes.
16 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown. If he keeps improving at this rate, he'll be able to pick up the slack for the absent Winston.
Michigan State defensive front
Six sacks, and they forced McGee/Williams into rushed throws all afternoon. They really set the tone for the entire game.
Showed how valuable he is to the secondary by jumping a route and returning the resulting interception for a touchdown. With Roderick Jenrette out for the season after breaking his foot against Michigan, Fortener's veteran presence will be needed.