CHAMPAIGN | Connor Cook struggled so badly against Purdue last week that Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio admitted he thought about benching the sophomore quarterback.
Saturday at Illinois, Cook found his way to the bench early in the fourth quarter.
This time, though, he was trading backslaps and smiles with teammates, the spoils of a 42-3 blowout win.
Cook set a school record for quarterbacking efficiency with 208 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-16 passing. He overcame a first-half fumble into the Illinois end zone that might have shaken most quarterbacks.
"He's a competitor and as he reassures me, 'Don't worry, I'll be fine.'" Dantonio said. "It was just that. I've seen him respond like that. He's growing as a young player."
Cook said he was bothered that he barely threw for 100 yards against one-win Purdue, but never doubted himself.
"Coming off a performance I had last week, obviously, I was upset and really focused on things," he said.
The Spartans defense played big, too, shutting down Illinois after an early field goal. Michigan State came into the game ranked first in the country in total defense at 228 yards a game. Illinois managed just 128. At halftime the Illini had a single rushing yard.
Tailback Jeremy Langford added 104 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns for the Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten). It was his third straight 100-yard game.
The Illini (3-4, 0-3), after leading 3-0 early, now have a 17-game Big Ten losing streak that stretches back more than two years.
"I think we started out fast but we, again, didn't capitalize on some things that we needed to," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said.
Almost half of Illinois' offense came on the game's opening drive, a 12-play, 53-yarder that ended with a field goal and a 3-0 lead that pumped a little optimism into a homecoming day crowd.
If all you saw was the final score, you might not believe Michigan State didn't take over at that moment. But the Spartans let Illinois hang around.
The backbreaker came slowly, agonizingly, over a little under nine minutes of the second quarter.
What looked like it was about to be an Illinois lead turned into a big 11-point edge for the Spartans. And, no surprise, their defense triggered it.
Michigan State stopped the Illini twice from its own 1-yard line midway through the quarter, stuffing running back Josh Ferguson and then, on fourth down with the homecoming crowd at its loudest, tight end Jon Davis just short of the goal line.
The Spartans took over at the 1 with 8:17 left in the quarter and ground their way oh-so slowly upfield.
More than eight minutes later, Cook faced a third-and-25 at the Illinois 29 after a pair of sacks. Rolling to his right to avoid more pressure, Cook slung the ball toward the front corner of the end zone where wide receiver Bennie Fowler waited behind a pair of Illinois defensive backs. One of them, freshman cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, slapped the ball up in the air and then appeared to tip it again before it looped up and over the goal line and into the hands of Fowler, falling backward for the touchdown.
"I had it," said Dunlap, who was starting his first game. "There are no excuses. I should have made that play."
Instead, Michigan State finished off a 99-yard drive, and was up 14-3 with nine seconds left in the half. And an Illini team that started sharp had to wonder how the heck it happened.
"Before that we had not built any momentum, so I think that's kind of where it all started," said Spartans linebacker Max Bullough, who helped stuff Davis on fourth-and-goal.
Cook opened the second half with a 13-yard touchdown to tight end Josiah Price for a 21-3 lead, and the Spartans were coasting.
The Illini had to think hard about the ways things might have been different.
The two shots from the Michigan State 1 when the deficit was just 7-3 hurt.
Just as bad, the Illini settled for the field goal on the game's opening drive when a 13-yard Jon Davis touchdown catch from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was called back because of a holding penalty on center Alex Hill. Davis appeared furious when he heard the referee's call, punching the air in front of him in disgust.
And Illinois handed the Spartans their first points. Wide receiver Ryan Lankford was hit hard by Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun as he tried to pitch to Martize Barr on a double reverse. The other Spartans defensive end, Marcus Bush, recovered the ball at the Illinois 23.
Four plays later, Langford punched the ball in from the Illinois 1-yard line for the first of his touchdowns and a 7-3 lead.