EAST LANSING, Mich. – As pleased as Mark Dantonio is about gaining the upper hand in Michigan State's rivalry with Michigan, he's also proud of the way the Spartans have avoided letdowns after recent wins over the Wolverines.
"When I look back, and I looked back last year at us after our Michigan game, we played very well when we went to Illinois the next week," Dantonio said. "I can't remember '08, but I knew we were winning because we won our next games after the Michigan game. So we were able to do that in those two years, and we need to be able to continue."
Fresh off victories over Wisconsin and Michigan, the 13th-ranked Spartans host Illinois on Saturday. Michigan State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) hasn't started 7-0 since 1966, but after beating the Wolverines 34-17 last weekend, the Spartans suddenly find themselves in the conference title race with a chance to play in a prestigious bowl if they keep winning.
That would be quite a way to end a turbulent year that has already included Dantonio's mild heart attack Sept. 19. The Michigan showdown was his first game back, and he coached from a box high above the field.
Dantonio also had a blood clot in his leg following surgery for the heart problem. He said Tuesday he'd need to show he can walk through a full practice before returning to the sideline.
No matter where Dantonio is on Saturday, his team will have to become comfortable playing as favorites against Illinois (3-2, 1-1), which went on the road last week and beat Penn State 33-13.
"We got a good win, but Illinois is a really good team and we think they'll be one of the most athletic teams we'll face," linebacker Greg Jones said. "I don't think anybody here is going to get too far ahead of themselves. We still have to get better."
After containing Wisconsin running back John Clay and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Jones and the Spartans will have to contend with Mikel Leshoure, who rushed for 119 yards against Penn State, and speedy quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
"We're still looked at as the team not picked to win this game, not picked to, I guess, even be a top six team in the Big Ten," said Scheelhaase, a freshman. "We look at it as another challenge, another opportunity to prove people wrong."
Michigan State's secondary will be missing suspended cornerback Chris L. Rucker, although Illinois has thrown the ball barely 20 times a game. The Illini are trying to avoid their own letdown after beating Penn State on the road for the first time ever.
"One of the first things I heard in the locker room, I'm not sure who said it, but we have to prepare the same way that we've prepared the last couple weeks," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We just have to continue to do the same thing."
Like Illinois, Michigan State boasts a dangerous running game, with Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell averaging at least 7 yards per carry. Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins has also been impressive the last few weeks, and he's completed 68 percent of his passes on the season.
That balance helped Michigan State sweep through the first six games of its schedule — but the Spartans are well aware the regular season is only half over.
"As much as anything it'll test our maturity as a football team, and that's the key thing," Dantonio said. "After a big win — after two really big wins — I guess some fruits of our labor with the ranking and all those type of things, it's about: What are we going to do next?"