Illinois 31, Michigan State 27
CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith probably isn't miserable now.
Jeff George Jr.'s 16-yard touchdown pass to Sam Mays reclaimed the Illini lead, and the Illinois defense's fourth-down red-zone stand in the closing seconds gave Illinois (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) a much-needed morale boost to a gloomy season
The victory is the Illini's first home win over an FBS team this season and its first win over Michigan State since a 2006 victory at East Lansing. The Spartans (2-7, 0-6), which were ranked No. 2 following its Sept. 17 win at Notre Dame, have now lost seven straight games.
Michigan State dominated time of possession 41:36 to 18:24, but Illinois made more big plays to put them over the top.
Junior running back Kendrick Foster ran for a career-high 146 yards on 17 carries, including touchdown runs of 64 and 19 yards, to spur a struggling Illinois offense.
A worn-out Illinois defense that was on the field for 90 of the game's 143 plays allowed 490 total yards but made huge stands throughout the game. Sophomore linebacker Tre Watson had a career-high 16 tackles. Dawuane Smoot added 2.5 tackles for loss, Jaylen Dunlap had four pass breakups, and Stanley Green forced two fumbles.
R.J. Shelton's 13-yard touchdown catch with 2:52 remaining gave Michigan State its first lead of the second half, but the Illini offense responded with a 45-yard scoring drive that included two pass interference penalties. The defense then forced an MSU turnover on downs with 12 seconds remaining.
Illinois didn't earn a first down until the 2:24 mark of the second quarter. At halftime, Michigan State dominated time of possession by a margin of 21:50 to 8:10. The Illini offense sputtered to five straight three-and-outs to start the game. But the Illini converted five first downs on the closing drive -- capped by Kendrick Foster's tough 19-yard draw run on 3rd-and-10 -- to give the Illini a 7-6 lead with 00:14 left in the second quarter.
The Michigan State offense drove into Illinois territory on each of their first five drives but scored just six first-half points. The Spartans committed six penalties for 50 yards in the first half.
What it means
The Illini are one loss away from their fifth straight losing season -- and it likely will happen soon a trip to No. 8 Wisconsin next week -- but this is a huge statement victory for Lovie Smith's program. Despite Sparty's terrible season, Michigan State is a great program with superior talent. While fans may have lost interest, Illinois has kept fighting. This win should help enthuse the team for the final three games and give a jolt to the Illini's recruiting sell. The Illini just beat Michigan State with its third string quarterback, a depleted wide receiver corps and seven freshmen playing huge roles on defense. This was the most impressive performance of the season for the first-year Illini staff.
What went right
The Illini run defense was phenomenal. The front seven owned the line of scrimmage against a Michigan State offense that ran for 217 yards last week against Michigan's elite defense.
Garrick McGee had an amazing game calling offensive plays. Without his top two quarterbacks and top two receivers and with a struggling offensive line, Illinois scored 31 points. He may have been the MVP of the game.
The last few weeks, Dawuane Smoot is playing like a man who wants to be a first round draft pick. He consistently disrupted the MSU backfield. Watson continues to gain consistency in run support, and Green continues to lay big hits from the free safety position. While the No. 2 cornerback position is a huge weakness, Dunlap has emerged into a reliable playmaker.
Foster continues to be a heck of a story. Again, he announced a transfer because he couldn't find playing time at Illinois his first three seasons. He completely changed his body and his game during the offseason and has been a big-time playmaker for Illinois. He now has three 50-plus yard touchdown runs this season.
Sophomore receiver Sam Mays showed some nice flashes. Turner took a big leap at this time last year when he was a sophomore. McGee recently called Mays "Baby Malik" due to his similar length and athleticism. It was a game for him to build on.
Illinois was the way more disciplined team. The Illini have cut down greatly on penalties (16 the last four games, compared to 12 in the home loss to Purdue).
What went wrong
The Illini offense is severely depleted of weapons. The Illini offensive line couldn't get much of a push against MSU's defensive line. And without Turner, Mike Dudek and Dominic Thieman, the Illini were forced to play mostly second-string receivers who struggled to get open against MSU's suspect secondary.
The Illini secondary continues to be a major problem. The Spartans took advantage of soft man coverage and routinely ran open in the middle of the field. Missed tackles on Donnie Corley's 47-yard catch and run cost Illinois three points. The second cornerback specifically has been a problem for Illniois. The Illini have now tried five players at that position with Cameron Watkins getting his first first-team reps of the season on Saturday.
George Jr. missed several open throws downfield, including two potential open touchdowns following MSU's lost fumble. His wide receivers didn't help him -- seniors Justin Hardee and Dionte Taylor ran some poor routes -- but the redshirt freshman quarterback and his receivers don't seem to have their timing down.
Illinois travels to Madison next week to take on No. 8 Wisconsin. The Badgers are the best two-loss team in the country with wins over LSU, Iowa and Wisconsin and one-touchdown losses to No. 3 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State. Despite the loss of great defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU, the Badgers defense remains elite. Illinois has lost five straight to Wisconsin and nine of the last 10. The Illini haven't won at Madison since a 37-20 win in 2002.