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.”