Moral vs. morale. Words that sound like synonyms, but aren’t.

Moral means “lesson learned.” There’s something to take away from a particular event, whether the face-value outcome was positive or negative.

Morale means “confidence.” When someone has high morale, it means life is trending upward. Moments are clicking. Positives are on the horizon.

Michigan State picked up a 23-15 morale-boosting win over No. 16 Illinois Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Forget the dubious play-calling by Mel Tucker late in the 4th quarter. Don’t think about the early interception by Payton Thorne that nearly spelled trouble when the game was barely under way.

For the past week, the Spartans have been under the microscope for the incident that occurred in the Big House. Two Michigan players suffered physical injuries after being bludgeoned by multiple MSU players following a 29-7 Wolverines’ win. Multiple players in East Lansing were suspended indefinitely, but some thought that wasn’t enough.

A win won’t change this season being viewed as a disappointment. Tucker still is underachieving after leading Sparty to an 11-2 season and Peach Bowl victory a year ago. But Saturday’s win was 4 quarters of proof that Michigan State has the potential to take care of business against anyone.

This isn’t your mom and pop’s version of the Illini. Ryan Walters’ defense entered Saturday holding opponents to an FBS-leading 10.4 points per game. The Illini also led the FBS in total defense and ranked top-3 in 3rd-down stinginess.

Michigan State took a 2nd quarter lead thanks to a Thorne 1-yard touchdown pass to Tre Mosley and held it for over 40 minutes. The passing attack averaged 6.3 yards per throw while the trio of Jarek Broussard, Jalen Berger and Elijah Collins combined for 104 yards on 22 carries.

Going into the game, Illinois’ defense had allowed 6 touchdowns all season. The Spartans tacked on 3 more within 60 minutes.

It was a team win in all facets. Despite giving up over 400 yards, the Spartans held Illinois to 1-of-6 on 4th down attempts. They limited star running back Chase Brown to 133 yards and just 4.1 per carry. They forced a turnover in the 2nd quarter, a rarity for Brown throughout his career.

And now, the Spartans are 4-5 instead of 3-6. Their next 2 opponents, Indiana and Rutgers, have a combined 7-11 record and have looked woeful on offense.

Where to next?

A top-20 win can do wonders internally. Defensively, performances like Saturday might be nit-picked due to the yards allowed, but the Illini scored 15 points — 7 of which came on a 60-yard touchdown in the 1st quarter from a pass by Tommy DeVito to Isaiah Williams.

Illinois’ offense isn’t up to its defensive standards, but it’s not a null unit, either. The Illini average 192 rushing yards per game. Butt outside of Brown — who needed a whopping 25 carries to surpass 100 yards — the Spartans on Saturday allowed only 17 yards rushing. As for passing, 127 of DeVito’s 288 yards came on 3 drives, 2 of which ended in touchdowns.

And again, 1-of-6 on 4th down? One more conversion, and perhaps Tucker’s hot seat becomes scalding in the coming weeks. Instead, he might appear safe even if a .500 season is this year’s top end.

Michigan State needs to play 4 quarters each week. And while the narrative is that football is played in 4 quarters, it’s so much easier said than done.

Tucker continues to find ways to win in the most unpropitious situations. Eight players were suspended after last week’s antics. The Spartans’ defense bent, but never broke. Thorne threw an interception on the opening play, looking as if a repeat of last week was on the docket. He ended up missing just 9 more throws and tossed a pair of touchdowns.

Morale was low following a the trip back home from Ann Arbor. It’s climbing entering the home stretch. And Tucker is part of the reason why. Does anyone remember the Michigan game in 2020 after losing to Rutgers? How about a win over Penn State after being blown out by Ohio State 7 days prior?

Tucker is a master when it comes to winning when it matters most. It happened again on Saturday. It could happen for the rest of the season. And when watching them play, the Spartans still have heart and are playing with purpose. They haven’t quit in dire circumstances, and still remain alive in the hunt for a bowl bid.

Funny what morale can do for a program, huh?