Spartans climb to No. 8, top ranking in Big Ten

Michigan State shut down Illinois to remain unbeaten – and the
good news didn’t end there.

Hours after the Spartans secured their best start in more than
four decades, Wisconsin beat Ohio State, giving a major boost to
Michigan State’s Big Ten title hopes. The Spartans moved up to No.
8 in the AP poll Sunday and are now the conference’s highest-ranked
team.

Michigan State is 7-0 for the first time since 1966.

”We’re very, very excited about a 7-0 start,” coach Mark
Dantonio said Sunday night. ”We’ve done something we haven’t done
in a while. But that doesn’t make a season.”

Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) plays at Northwestern (5-1,
1-1) next weekend, and the Spartans’ impressive start has certainly
raised the stakes for that game. It’ll be the first time they leave
the state this season. The Spartans’ only true road game so far was
a 34-17 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor on Oct. 9.

Michigan State knew it needed to avoid a letdown Saturday, and
for the most part, the Spartans did. They stumbled through the
first half and trailed 6-3 after two quarters before storming back
in the third. After an interception gave Michigan State the ball at
the Illinois 16-yard line, Dan Conroy kicked his second of four
field goals to tie the game.

Kirk Cousins then put the Spartans ahead to stay with a 48-yard
touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham.

Ohio State isn’t on Michigan State’s schedule this season, so
the Buckeyes now have to hope someone else hands the Spartans a
loss. Michigan State’s toughest remaining game is probably Oct. 30
at Iowa, which is ranked No. 13 and also unbeaten in the Big
Ten.

For those who feel like dreaming big, the Spartans were No. 7 in
the BCS standings released Sunday night. Dantonio downplayed any
national title talk.

”That’s nice, but we have to focus on the task at hand,” he
said. ”I’m going to watch a Northwestern game tonight.”

Michigan State went 6-7 last season, losing the Alamo Bowl after
several players didn’t make the trip in the wake of a dormitory
brawl. Dantonio said that turmoil helped the team become
stronger.

”I knew this football team would be special because of the
things we had to go through last season,” he said. ”I felt like
the guys that were there were all-in.”

There have been distractions this season too. Defensive back
Chris L. Rucker was suspended from the Illinois game after being
charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and Dantonio
didn’t have anything new to say on his status.

”That hasn’t been resolved, and there’s work to do to get that
resolved,” he said. ”At this point in time, I’m not sure he would
play.”

The Spartans also had to keep their focus after Dantonio’s mild
heart attack last month. He’s back but has been coaching from a box
above the field. It’s not clear when he might return to the
sideline.

”The key thing is whether I can walk a whole practice and not
get tired,” he said. ”That’s three hours. I’m getting pretty
close.”

Through it all, Michigan State hasn’t missed a beat. Illinois
(3-3, 1-2) contained the Spartans’ running game, but Cousins made a
few big passes and the Illini hardly did anything offensively.

”It has been different this year,” Cousins said. ”Last year,
the defense fed off the offense. Now, we win as a team. Every
element contributes in some way.”

Linebacker Greg Jones was credited with 14 tackles, part of a
defensive effort that held Illinois’ Mikel Leshoure to 83 yards
rushing. The Spartans have contained Wisconsin’s John Clay,
Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Leshoure in their last three
games.

Michigan State also forced four Illinois turnovers after forcing
three against Michigan.

”We’re making plays on the ball,” defensive coordinator Pat
Narduzzi said. ”That’s what we didn’t do a year ago. There’s no
magic to it.”