Michigan State's latest letdown lasted only a half — and that's one sign these Spartans could be headed for a memorable season.
Kirk Cousins threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham in the third quarter, helping No. 13 Michigan State to its best start in more than four decades with a 26-6 win over Illinois on Saturday. The Spartans started slowly a week after beating Michigan, but they outscored the Illini 23-0 in the second half.
"I don't know if flat and cocky are the right words," Cousins said. "That was a very good football team we were playing, and we've been very good in the second half all year."
The Spartans are 7-0 for the first time since 1966, when they won their first nine games before famously tying Notre Dame 10-10.
"I think it means we're getting there," coach Mark Dantonio said. "When you can do that, you're building a program."
Michigan State's last 6-0 start was in 1999 under Nick Saban, but the Spartans lost their next two games that season by a combined 92-38. Dantonio talked this week about the need to show maturity — to prepare well for Illinois after last weekend's emotional 34-17 win over Michigan.
The Spartans had trouble running the ball the first two quarters against Illinois, but Cousins came out sharp in the third and they took control of the game. Cousins' touchdown pass over the middle made it 13-6, and the defense kept Illinois (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) at bay.
It was an impressive response by Michigan State (7-0, 3-0) after what linebacker Greg Jones described as an intense scene at halftime.
"There was a lot of noise," Jones said. "There was a few words being said."
Dantonio, who had a mild heart attack last month, coached his second straight game from a box, but he went down to the sideline during the final minutes and received a big ovation from the Homecoming crowd.
"It was humbling," Dantonio said. "I sit at the top of this program, but there are so many people in this program that make it work."
Cousins finished 13 of 24 for 201 yards and shook off a difficult first half. On fourth-and-1 from the Illinois 35 in the second quarter, Cousins fell over after taking the snap, giving the Illini the ball.
Both teams appeared disorganized at the end of the second quarter. Illinois ran on third-and-10 from near midfield and didn't come close to a first down, but Michigan State decided not to call timeout before getting the ball back. That worked in the Spartans' favor because Keshawn Martin muffed the punt, giving the Illini possession at the 15 with 37 seconds left.
Amazingly, Illinois ran only one play from scrimmage, a 1-yard loss by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaasse. Instead of calling timeout, the Illini tried to set up their next play, and the clock didn't stop until Michigan State called timeout with 8 seconds left, apparently concerned about its defensive plan.
At that point, the Illini sent out Derek Dimke to kick a 33-yard field goal and went into halftime ahead 6-3.
"We took too long getting the play called. Once again that's something that Nathan's going to get better at," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "They called timeout and we thought it was at 12 seconds which would have given us an opportunity to throw in the end zone."
Michigan State wasted no time tying the game in the third quarter. After an interception gave the Spartans the ball at the Illinois 16, Dan Conroy kicked his second of four field goals.
Cousins put Michigan State ahead to stay with his long touchdown pass. Illinois answered with a 39-yard pass to A.J. Jenkins, but Darqueze Dennard forced a fumble at the end of the play and recovered the ball.
"I thought they were probably playing the best in the Big Ten and maybe in the country, and that rang true today," Scheelhaasse said. "We put ourselves in a position where we were able to compete with them and able to do some things. We just didn't capitalize at the right time."
Michigan State was playing without suspended defensive back Chris L. Rucker, who was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated last Sunday.
Larry Caper's 15-yard touchdown run made it 26-6 with 2:35 remaining in the fourth, putting the finishing touches on an emphatic victory over an Illinois team that played Ohio State tough and routed Penn State.
"Without looking at the tape, to me it's the best team we've played to date," Zook said. "They're solid. We told you it was going to be a physical football game, which it was."