EAST LANSING - When Tyler Hoover was prodded as to the reason behind his breakout nine tackle, 1-sack performance in Michigan State's 26-6 win over Illinois on Saturday, he flashed a smile and said, 'you never want to peak, you're always trying to learn.'
So that probably means that Hoover gets an A-plus this week after ending his day looking like a battle-tested veteran as he took on tackles, blocking backs and tight ends en route to the best individual performance of his college career.
And he did it against darn good Illini offensive line, finishing with a career-high nine tackles and his first career sack. For good measure, he threw in a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. He walked off the field as MSU's third-leading tackler on the day.
"I'm always trying to stamp that card and once our defense stops the run, our d-line can start pinning their ears back and come after the qurterback,'' Hoover said. "It's not what I did this week, it's just kind of a continuation of getting better. Coach (Ted) Gill is always coaching on techniques and I'm always trying to do different things, so once something works, you feel pretty happy.''
His signature play, after a day of being beat on primarily by 300-plus pound men, was a solo sack of Illini redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse on on a 2-and-11 play.
The sack was significant because it put Illinois in a 3-and-18 after the Novi native pinned Scheelhasse for a 7-yard loss.
And eventhough Illinois did earn a first down on a the next play, by way of penalty, it was Hoover's play aftyer that that led to a quarterback hurry by Scheelhasse, who threw a pass that was picked off by Trenton Robinson for MSU's third interception of the day.
Hoover's play had been significant all day but his effort on a drive that could have led to a score that would have left Illinois a touchdown and extra point from victory helped seal the deal on a win that sent the Spartans to the program's first 7-0 start since 1966.
On that Illinois drive which started with 11:27 left at the Illini's 28 and ended at their own 49, the 6-foot7, 260-pound Hoover was a noticeably disruptive force, capping off a banner day.
He finished the six-play sequence with two tackles, one for loss, and a quarterback hurry.
Not bad for a guy who entered the seventh game of the season with just six tackles, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery and ended his day as a redshirt sophomore rush end eclipsing his career numbers from the prior two seasons in just one day.
Hoover, who earned a medical redshirt after a first-year shoulder injury put him out of the lineup for the last 10 games of that season, had entered Saturday's contest with a 2009 season that saw him total 13 tackles, a half tackle for loss and one pass breakup in 13 contests.
Saturday's success, however reluctant Hoover was to pat himself on the back, may have signaled the arrival of a player that MSU's defensive line could really use a boost from as the Spartans look to increase their standing in the bowl picture.
"You always have confidence when you start making more plays but the mindset has always got to be that you have to get better,'' he said. "That's just how it is.''
WHO' S THAT NEW GO-TO GUY? It's funny to think of sophomore running back Larry Caper as a go-to guy in MSU's three-pronged rushing attack but that was just the role that the 5-11, 220-pound Battle Creek native found himself in as he scored the game-clinching touchdown on Saturday.
After fellow sophomore runner Edwin Baker had helped soften up the Illini defense with five runs totaling 15 yards, Caper, who looked as though he was fully recovered from the two game he missed with a hand injury and the rust he suffered not getting carries for two Saturdays was brought in as the closer.
And he delivered on a 3-and-6 play at the Illini 15, sprinting around the right end after a handoff for a touchdown socring run that saw him squeeze the ball just inside the orange just pylon.
"I thought I stepped out, so I was just hoping they got the extra point off (quickly, so it couldn't be reviewed),'' Caper said with a smile.
On MSU's previous drive that ended in a Dan Conroy field goal, Caper had almost closed out a nine-play drive with a 6-yard run from the 7 that saw barely kept out of the endzone on the left side of the field.
So it made perfect sense to go with Caper, MSU's best blocker at running back, when there was a chance to put the game away.
"When my number is called, I just want to be prepared and ready,'' said Caper, who ended the day with a team-leading 37 yards on seven carries, while catching one pass for 12 yards on a screen play that led to first down on a 3rd-and-4 situation."So, I prepared myself all week to have a successful game and thnat's what I had today.''
QUOTE OF THE DAY: B.J. Cunningham scored MSU's only touchdown through the air on a post pattern that saw Illinois' defensive backs bite hard on the corner route. That left Cunningham free to streak towards the post for a wide open 48-TD reception during a span in the second half in which MSU scored 23 unanswered points.
The play, which left an Illinois safety pointing to one of his teammates about the coverage even before Cunningham caught the ball, brought up a question about whether the junior wideout was too open and worried about losing concentration and dropping the ball.
No so for the team's leader in TD receptions this season.
"When you first start out as a young player, you might be thinking like that but I was saying, 'oh, that's six, I'm going to catch this and go ahead and get in the endzone. Kirk (Cousins) threw me a great pass, he just lofted it up. East catch, easy throw, touchdown!''
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