Michigan State Smokes the Illini

<p>Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker continued his hot streak and led the Spartans to a 49-14 victory over Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The senior signal caller strengthened his case for Big Ten Player of the Year and the Heisman by completing 23 of 31 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns.

The Spartans improved to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. Illinois dropped to 1-6 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten conference.

As for Illinois, it was another rough day at the office for Head Coach Ron Turner. On a positive note, the Illini did not fall behind by double digits in the first quarter, like they had against Wisconsin and Purdue. However, a second quarter interception of Jon Beutjer and subsequent Michigan State touchdown put an end to any thoughts of victory from the residents of Illini Nation. After the turnover, the Illini were outscored 42-7 and their confidence was shattered.

For the second week in a row, Illini fans were given a glimpse at the future when freshman QB Chris Pazan entered the game. The reserve QB replaced Beutjer, who was 19 of 27 for 146 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Pazan made a positive impression on the home crowd, or what was left of it, when he threw a 6-yard touchdown strike to running back Ibrahim Halsey with 1:05 left in the contest. Pazan finished the contest 7 of 11 passing for 67 yards, 1 touchdown and no interceptions. If the season continues along its current path, and there are no signs that it will not, Pazan could take over the starting role in the next few weeks.

The Illinois rushing game, which was non-existent for quite some time, appeared rejuvenated on Saturday. Running backs Halsey (19 attempts for 75 yards) and Pierre Thomas (8 carries for 57 yards) were able to find holes in the defense for the first time in weeks. However, the positive yardage on the ground did not lead to points on the board for the Illini.

While the Illinois offense was able to move the ball fairly well against the Spartan defense, turnovers did in Coach Turner's team. The Illini gave the ball away three times during the contest, leading to 21 Michigan State points.

On defense, the Illini showed some signs of life early on in the ballgame. Illinois' defense held Michigan State to a three and out series to start the game. On the Spartans' possession after the Illini had tied the game at 7-7, the defense came up big by forcing MSU to punt. But, the next play was the Beutjer interception that was returned to the Illinois 2-yard line by Eric Smith. The defense put up a valiant effort to keep Smoker and the Spartan offense out of the end zone, but RB Tyrell Dortch plunged up the middle for 1 yard and the touchdown. For all intents and purposes, the game was over at that moment.

In the post game press conference, Turner discussed the lack of confidence that his players have right now.

"We got a better start; I thought we came out with good energy. Our confidence is so fragile right now, when something bad happens we loose all our confidence. We just have to keep fighting, I thought the guys prepared well and got off to a better start and all of a sudden, it just kind of collapsed."

The Illini face a difficult task next week. They travel to the Big House in Ann Arbor, MI to play the University of Michigan. Beutjer knows that the Illini have a big task ahead of them next Saturday.

"They are a good team with a good coaching staff. After their comeback win last night (Friday against Minnesota) they'll have a lot of confidence coming in. We just have to continue to work and prepare for them like we do for any other team."

ESPN was calling the day "Separation Saturday" because of all the matchups between top-ranked teams and the likelihood that some teams would separate themselves from the pack. The Spartans separated themselves from the middle of the road teams in the Big Ten and proved they can contend for the conference crown. Illinois separated themselves from the rest of the Big Ten in the opposite direction. Today's performance just solidified what Illini faithful had feared all along. Illinois just does not have the horses to run with the top teams in the Midwest, week in and week out.

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