CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Head coach Mark Dantonio likes where his team stands, record-wise, and psychologically, after a punishing 42-3 victory at Illinois on Saturday.
"Good things are happening," Dantonio said. "We have built a nice foundation of what we're doing. We're 7-1 right now and more importantly we are are 4-0 in the conference right now, so we sit on top of the Legends (Division), which I think is important. We need to continue to build on these things."
They will get that chance next week in a meeting with Michigan and Spartan Stadium. The Spartans will do so with a suddenly hot-again sophomore quarterback Connor Cook
Cook threw for three touchdowns and Michigan State's defense locked down Illinois, holding the Illini to just 128 yards of total offense and eight first downs.
Cook finished 15-of-16 for 208 yards, setting a Michigan State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) record for passing efficiency just a week after he was grilled for failing to move the ball against Purdue.
But the Spartan defense, which is ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense, shows up every week.
"We have a strong defense," Dantonio said. "Our offense is coming. We're able to run the football. We have balance. So we need to take care of business."
Tailback Jeremy Langford had 104 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns for the Spartans.
Michigan State held Illinois to just 25 yards rushing.
Illinois had been scoring 35.3 points a game.
"A lot of it's going to go to the Michigan State defense," said Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. "I don't know if I've run through a game plan and called that many types of plays just to get something going and then once you get one thing going, they shut it down. I think that's the value of a lot of older guys."
Max Bullough's post-game thoughts on the MSU goal-line stand, and the lift delivered by the Spartan offense:
Almost half of Illinois' offense came on the game's opening drive, a 12-play, 53-yarder that ended with a field goal and a 3-0 lead that pumped a little optimism into a homecoming day crowd.
If all you saw was the final score, you might not believe Michigan State didn't take over at that moment. But the Spartans let Illinois hang around, taking their time before finally grinding them down.
The backbreaker came slowly, agonizingly, over a little under nine minutes of the second quarter.
What looked like it was about to be an Illinois lead turned into a big 11-point edge for the Spartans. And, no surprise, their defense triggered it.
Michigan State stopped the Illini twice from its own 1-yard line midway through the quarter, stuffing running back Josh Ferguson and then, on fourth down with the homecoming crowd at its loudest, tight end Jon Davis just short of the goal line.
The Spartans took over at the 1 with 8:17 left in the quarter and ground their way oh-so slowly upfield.
More than eight minutes later, Cook faced a third-and-25 at the Illinois 29 after a pair of sacks. Rolling to his right to avoid more pressure, Cook slung the ball toward the front corner of the end zone where wide receiver Bennie Fowler waited behind a pair of Illinois defensive backs. One of them, freshman cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, slapped the ball up in the air and then appeared to tip it again before it looped up and over the goal line and into the hands of Fowler, falling backward for the touchdown.
Fifteen plays, 99 long yards and 8:08 of clock time gone.
Michigan State was suddenly up 14-3 with nine seconds left in the half. And an Illini team that started sharp had to wonder how the heck it happened.
Worse, Michigan State got the football again on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, and didn't waste time widening the gap.
Cook found tight end Josiah Price just outside the Illini end zone and ducked in for a 13-yard touchdown with 10:07 left in the third quarter.
Up 21-3, the Spartans were coasting.
"We handled some adversity," Dantonio said. "That's the thing that is impressive to me. We remained pretty resilient as a football team."
Shilique Calhoun on the pivotal fumble recovery and the defensive performance:
The Illini had to think hard about the ways things might have been different.
The two shots from the Michigan State 1 when the deficit was just 7-3 hurt.
Just as bad, the Illini settled for the field goal on the game's opening drive when a 13-yard Jon Davis touchdown catch from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was called back because of a holding penalty on center Alex Hill. Davis appeared furious when he heard the referee's call, punching the air in front of him in disgust.
And Illinois handed the Spartans their first points. Wide receiver Ryan Lankford was hit hard by Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun as he tried to pitch to Martize Barr on a double reverse. The other Spartans defensive end, Marcus Bush, recovered the ball at the Illinois 23.
Four plays later, Langford punched the ball in from the Illinois 1-yard line for the first of his touchdowns and a 7-3 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Maxwell and Tyler O'Connor relieved Cook for mop-up time, which featured MSU's ground game. Cook roamed the sideline the final 15 minutes with his helmet off, exchanging smiles and backslaps with Langford, Fowler and the other Spartans who'd been pulled.
Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 17 games, with a road trip to Penn State on the schedule next Saturday. The last Illini win the in the conference came more than two years ago, 41-20 over Indiana on Oct. 8, 2011.
Michigan State now leads the all-time series against Illinois, 26-17-2, including a 13-9-1 record in games played in Champaign, Ill. ... MSU has won 12 of the past 13 meetings in the series, including seven straight in Memorial Stadium ... the Spartans have now won three straight in the series, and head coach Mark Dantonio is 3-0 against the Illini.
Michigan State's 7-1 start is the best eight-game start for the Spartans since they opened 8-0 in 2010 ... MSU is also 4-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2010.
Connor Cook went 15-of-16 passing for 208 yards and 3 TDs ... Cook's .938 completion percentage is a school single-game record (min. 10 comp) and sixth-best in Big Ten history ... Cook finished the game with 11 straight completions for 185 yards ... it marks the first time a Spartan QB has completed 11 straight passes in a game since Kirk Cousins against Notre Dame in 2011 ... MSU's previous single-game completion record was .917, held by Dave Yarema and Dan Enos ... Yarema completed 10-of-11 passes against Northwestern in 1982, while Enos was 10-of-11 against Minnesota in 1990.
Jeremy Langford recorded his third-straight 100-yard rushing game with 104 yards 22 carries ... he had 109 rushing yards vs. Indiana and a career-high 131 against Purdue.
MSU was 14-of-16 on third-down conversions in the game.
MSU held Illinois to just 25 yards rushing on 21 attempts ... the Spartans have held all eight of their 2013 opponents below 100 yards rushing ... In 87 games under Mark Dantonio, MSU has held its opponents under 100 yards rushing 43 times (49 percent) ... Michigan State is the only team in the FBS this season that hasn't allowed a team to rush for 100 yards.
Michigan State's defense allowed 53 yards to Illinois on the Illini's first drive, which resulted in a field goal; the rest of the game, the Spartans gave up just 75 yards, for a total of 128 yards of total offense for Illinois.
On Michigan State's second touchdown drive of the game late in the second quarter, MSU drove the ball 99 yards on 15 plays, covering 8:08 on the clock ... the drive came right after the Spartans stopped Illinois on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line ... Michigan State was 5-for-5 on third-down conversions on the drive (Cook 11-yard pass to Bennie Fowler; Illinois pass interference; Cook 16-yard pass to Macgarrett Kings Jr.; Cook 4-yard rush; Cook 29-yard TD pass to Fowler) ... Cook was 6-of-6 passing for 81 yards on the drive.