Illinois vs. Michigan State game notes

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

Illinois’ storybook season keeps getting better. Off the strength of a massive fourth-quarter rally against Michigan State, Illinois earned its fourth-straight win against a Big Ten opponent. For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, and since the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014, Illinois finds itself bowl eligible.

“We’re going bowling,” head coach Smith said. “Just pumped up for the guys. So much has gone into us being in this position. We always talk about starting fast, but it’s about the finish. We’ve been down a few times, and I think that’s the largest comeback in school history. That’s awesome.”

The Illini channeled its inner Patriots, erasing a 28-3 lead while handing the Spartans their fourth-straight, and perhaps the most devastating, loss of their season. Now that the Illini get the chance to rest up with a bye-week before hitting the road again to face off against the Hawkeyes, they’ll have plenty of time to take in their latest win.

The Half That Clinched a Bowl Game

It looked like the recent success the Illini have been having was coming to an end. The Illini missed linebacker Jake Hansen and defensive lineman Oluwole Betiku with injuries and lost linebacker Milo Eifler early in the game after he was ejected for throwing a punch. Illinois’ rushing game was all but nonexistent, and the offense almost suffered two forced fumbles — the latter call being reversed, along with a targeting call on center Doug Kramer — that resulted in an extra touchdown for Michigan State.

Trailing 28-3 as the halftime loomed just as the Illini situation was at its direst, the comeback began. Graduate transfer quarterback Brandon Peters threw a 46-yard pass right into the hands of wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe for a half-closing touchdown.

Illinois wouldn’t score in the third quarter, holding Michigan State to just a field goal in the quarter and setting itself up for the greatest comeback in program history. Peters wasted no time starting the fourth, finding Imatorbhebhe again, who escaped for an 83-yard touchdown only 12 seconds into the quarter.

The Illini scored again on running back Reggie Corbin’s 6-yard rush into the end zone that cut the Spartans’ lead to 31-24.

Defensive lineman Isaiah Gay then recovered a botched snap that put the Illini on the 8-yard line. Corner Back Shakur Brown briefly stopped the bleeding for the Spartans after intercepting Peters’ end zone pass attempt. Soon after, Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown responded with a 76-yard pick six. The play would have tied the game, but kicker James McCourt missed the point after attempt.

With the Spartans’ backs against the wall, Michigan State’s kicker Matt Coghlin hit a 46-yard field goal to preserve what bit of a lead the Spartans had left. The Illini had one last chance to drive. After completing a game-saving 37-yard pass to Imatorbhebhe on fourth-and-17, Peters and the Illini steadily marched downfield.

Michigan State nearly secured the last-minute stop it would’ve needed to win the game, but after putting Illinois in a fourth-down situation at the goal line, Michigan State’s defensive back Josh Butler got tangled up with wide receiver Caleb Reams and was called for pass interference.

Patiently gathering himself two plays later, Peters found a wide-open tight end Daniel Barker with five seconds left in the game, icing the 37-34 comeback victory and sending the Illini bowling.

Defense: B+

The Illini went from giving up four touchdowns in one half to just two field goals in the second. With Hansen, Betiku and Eifler out, the defense got off to a rough start, but it tightened up as the game drew closer to its finish.

It was Sydney Brown’s pick six that put the Illini in the position they needed to win, but another interception of his and an interception from defensive back Stanley Green, along with the fumble recovery off of the botched snap, meant four forced turnovers Saturday afternoon.

As a team, the Illini have now forced a nation-leading 26 turnovers, which has helped the team flip momentum in many of its wins. The Illini now have at least one fumble recovery in each of their games this season.

Linebacker Dele Harding led the Illini in tackles with 14. He’s joined by three other Illini who reached double figures in that area, Sydney (13), Green (10) and linebacker Dawson DeGroot (10). Khalan Tolson, who filled in for Hansen at linebacker, added nine tackles of his own.

Josh Imatorbhebhe: A+

After the Illini lost their fourth game of the season, Imatorbhebhe and the team seemed flustered. All the signs of a competitive team were there, but the results on the field weren’t completely translating. Imatorbhebhe explained the team needed to find a way to get over the inertia it was facing and start getting back to playing the way it had began the season.

Needless to say, if Imatorbhebhe wasn’t an Illini fan favorite, he certainly is after Saturday afternoon. His 46-yard touchdown reception from Peters sent the Illini to the locker room with the energy they needed to swing things back around for the second half.

It seemed any time the Illini were in a pinch, Imatorbhebhe was there to right the ship. After catching another long pass from Peters, who threw for 369 yards on the afternoon, he escaped past the last line of defense and scored Illinois’ first touchdown of the fourth quarter.

From there, the Illini offense turned into a well-oiled machine, but Imatorbhebhe’s heroics for the Illini weren’t finished. Catching a 37-yard pass from Peters on a fourth-and-17 situation kept the final drive alive for the Illini. The play led to Barker’s game-winning touchdown catch.

Imatorbhebhe finished the game with four catches for 178 yards. He scored two touchdowns, with his longest reception being the 83-yard play that opened the Illini fourth quarter.

“Going into the season, we felt good about ourselves,” Smith said. “ I know there was a period of time where we were 2-4 and a lot of people were jumping off of the bandwagon, doubting what we could do. The guys know how to come back.”

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