It took MSU one possession to warm up, then on their second possession Smoker took back-to-back big chunks out of the Illinois defense, hitting Jaren Hayes and Eric Knott for 24 yards each. MSU got it down to the Illini 1-yard line where Jaren Hayes gave the Spartans a 7-0 lead.
It stayed that way until just before the end of the first quarter when Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer engineered a 15-play 84-yard drive, hitting Mark Kornfield in the end zone from 10 yards out to tie the score.
The game turned for good though when after a 50-yard Brandon Fields punt pinned Illinois in their own territory, MSU safety Eric Smith picked off Beutjer and returned it to the Illini 2-yard line. Tyrell Dortch took it in from 1-yard out and MSU had a 14-7 lead.
"I think that was the play that turned the tide and sealed the deal, " said MSU head coach John L. Smith. "That was big."
"I think it kind of killed their (Illinois) momentum and it got us going too," Smith said of his timely interception. "We knew someone needed to make a big play, and I got the chance."
MSU's defense forced an Illini punt and Smoker connected with Jerramy Scott for his first career TD to put MSU up 21-7 at the half.
After Illinois' opening drive of the half stalled, MSU revved up the engines as Smoker connected with Knott and sophomore wideout Matt Trannon for long gains to get inside Illinois territory. Tyrell Dortch scored his second touchdown of the game on a 4-yard plunge and the rout was on.
The Spartans connected through the air and pounded the Illini on the ground. Smoker hit freshman DeAndra Cobb, tight end Jason Randall and wide receiver Agim Shabaj to get every MSU receiver into the act. Meanwhile Hayes was pounding up the middle for runs of 4 and 11 yards.
MSU's defense then took the game over starting when corner Jason Harmon picked off Beutjer at the Illini 33-yard line and returned it to the Illinois 12-yard line. After a holding call backed the Spartans up 10 yards, Smoker went long to hit the only receiver he had not connected with, Aaron Alexander for a 21-yard TD to give MSU a 35-7 lead.
With the Illini unable to move the football, coach Ron Turner had seen enough. He pulled the senior Beutjer and inserted red shirt freshman Chris Pasan hoping to spark the offense. Pasan drove the Illini to the MSU 38 before safety Eric Smith sacked him on third down to halt the threat.
Smoker then went long to sophomore Kyle Brown who had almost been a forgotten man in the MSU offense. Brown hauled it in for a 28-yard gain to the Illini 3-yard line. Smoker took it in from one yard out on the naked bootleg to up the count to 42-7.
The defense picked it up another notch when Harmon forced a fumble by Illini running back Pierre Thomas. Harmon scooped up the fumble and returned it 52-yards for a Michigan State touchdown to give State their final touchdown of the day and 49 points on the afternoon.
Coach John L. Smith took the opportunity to get some of his reserves some valuable playing time on the road and the Illini took advantage to score an "excuse-me" touchdown when Pasan hit freshman running back E. B. Halsey from 6-yards out to make the final score 49-14.
"I'm particularly proud of our coaches," said Smith. "They put together a tremendous plan. It was tough duty this week, and at this point of the season, it's going to be tough duty every week because we're without guys. We've got guys banged up and bruised, and the second team guys are stepping in and playing hard."
"You're not going to be mentally sky-high and emotional for every game, but you have to be able to go through your business in a business-like manner, focus, and take care of business. We're starting to learn that."
The pollsters rewarded the business-like Spartans with a top fifteen ranking (#15) and MSU had a sweet trip home knowing that they will be going to a bowl for the first time in three season after becoming bowl eligible with their six win in seven tries. Coach John L. Smith is certainly the front-runner for Big Ten coach of the year and Jeff Smoker is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
"We are playing good football right now," said Smoker, "and we just want to keep that going. We don't want to be satisfied with being bowl eligible. We want to keep this up. Honestly, I wasn't sure where we would be at this point of the season, but I can say I'm real happy with where we are. We can do something special here."
Like maybe a Big Ten championship?
"We are the only team that can keep us from a Big Ten championship," said Smoker, "us beating ourselves. We still show some signs of being ourselves."
MSU (6-1) will have a tough test if they want to keep the dream alive for another week. They travel to Minneapolis to play a wounded Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-1) team that blew a 21-point lead in a heartbreaking 38-35 loss to Michigan.