Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) hands the ball off during the first half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. (Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The action that mattered could be found in the first half, right around the goal line, where a Big Ten championship contender and bottom feeder played to their reputations.
Michigan State got a goal-line stand and an easy touchdown plunge on third-and-goal from the 1. Illinois couldn't capitalize on a Connor Cook fumble and couldn't intercept a Cook pass - which was tipped into the hands of teammate Bennie Fowler for a back-breaking score.
Whatever chance Illinois had of a homecoming upset ended there, along with concerns that the Spartans would worry too much about next week's Michigan game to do the job in dreary Memorial Stadium. Cook's record day led MSU to a 42-3 rout and kept the Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) alone in first place in the Legends Division as the race prepares to take shape.
Nebraska's loss to Minnesota today means MSU is the only Legends team unbeaten in Big Ten play, and it means the winner of the MSU-Michigan at Spartan Stadium (3:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC) is the clear favorite. The Wolverines (6-1, 2-1) are off this weekend.
A week after struggling for most of a 14-0 win over Purdue, Cook was laser-sharp in swirling winds. He overcame the early fumble to go 15-for-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns - setting an MSU single-game record for completion percentage.
His 93.8% accuracy was also sixth in Big Ten history (minimum 10 attempts).
Jeremy Langford had 104 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, his third straight 100-yard day, and freshman Delton Williams added a 42-yard touchdown run for the Spartans.
MSU won the opening toss, opted to kick off and immediately got a look at Illinois' resurgent offense - which entered the game averaging 150 more yards and 19 more points per game than it did last season.
Nathan Scheelhaase led the Illini from their 34 to the MSU 13 and appeared to throw a touchdown to tight end Jon Davis - but it was called back by a holding that prevented Denicos Allen from getting to Scheelhaase.
Illinois settled for a 31-yard Taylor Zalewski field goal. After the teams traded stops, MSU started to establish itself up front, with Langford running six straight times for 39 yards to the Illinois 5.
But on first down, Cook went inside on a keeper, stretched and had the ball stripped by Jonathan Brown before he could reach the goal line.
Illinois recovered in the end zone for a touchback and had all the early momentum. Then one of MSU's top defensive playmakers reversed it.
Shilique Calhoun barged in on a reverse, hit receiver Ryan Lankford before he could pitch the ball, and MSU's Marcus Rush recovered the fumble at the Illinois 23.
The offensive finished this time, with an easy 1-yard plunge for Langford into the end zone on third-and-goal, after a Cook pass to tight end Jamal Lyles got MSU close.
Illinois responded. Scheelhaase completed passes of 27 and 17 yards and moved Illinois 62 yards to the MSU 1.
On third-and-goal from there, MSU's Isaiah Lewis and Denzel Drone stuffed Josh Ferguson. On fourth-and-goal from there, MSU's Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard stuffed Davis, a tight end who sometimes gets goal-line carries.
It was a huge lift for MSU and a huge downer for Illinois. And it served as the turning point - after MSU drove 99 yards for a touchdown to go up 14-3 at the half.
Cook was sharp on the drive until the end, taking consecutive sacks to set up a third-and-25 from the Illinois 29. He rolled right and threw into coverage, but Illinois cornerback Jaylen Dunlap tipped the pass into the hands of Fowler, who fell into the end zone.
It was a lucky play, and there wasn't another really important one for the rest of the day.
Contact Joe Rexrode: firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him onTwitter @joerexrode. Check out his MSU blog atfreep.com/heyjoe.