MADISON – In terms of a pick-me-up, Illinois couldn’t have asked for a better one last Saturday.
Scoring its most points in nearly a month on offense and having a beleaguered defense come up with a key fourth-down stop in the final seconds, the Illini will head into their matchup against No.7 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium this weekend with some confidence after knocking off Michigan State, 31-27.
“I thought our team played extremely hard throughout,” first-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “I thought we were physical, probably the most physical football game we've played all year.”
Even though Michigan State hasn’t won since Sept.17, beating a name program was just what the Illini needed. Illinois (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) had dropped three Big Ten games by at least two scores, an overtime game at home to struggling Purdue and slogged through a win at Rutgers.
Yet, Smith said his team wasn’t willing to pack it in.
"I think you just get to the point where you keep pounding the rock, eventually you see a crack,” Smith said. “I don't think it was a movie, you just can't- it's a little bit bigger than just that. I think you just stay the course and eventually you get over the hump. I think that where we are, we got over the hump last week.
“Now it's about putting a big game together back-to-back. When you accomplish something that you worked so hard for, there is a sense of relief, a little bit.”
Nobody might be more relieved than Smith, who decided to return to the college ranks after a 10-year N.F.L. career. Smith was viewed as the big splash hire by new athletic director Josh Whitman, who was hired in February and tasked with moving the program away from the stain left by Tim Beckman’s firing one week before the 2015 following an external review.
Illinois has not had a winning record in four seasons or a season where it finished over .500 in the Big Ten since Ron Zook took the program to the Rose Bowl in 2007. It’s part of the reason why Smith - who was 89-87 in N.F.L. coaching stops in Chicago and Tampa Bay - was given a six year, $21 million contract. In the 48 hours following the announcement of the Smith hire, the university sold over 2,000 new season tickets and more than 400 new student season tickets
“I have a ton of respect for Lovie,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “Who he is as a person and who he is as a coach.”
In what has been a trying year with injuries and porous performance, Illinois won Saturday despite the Spartans racking up 490 yards of offense and only possessing the ball for 18 minutes, 24 seconds. The group does have some playmakers, especially at linebacker.
Graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson is averaging 9.4 tackles per game to rank second in the Big Ten and has more tackles (331) than any other active power-five player. Sophomore Tre Watson was named the conference defensive player of the week after making 16 tackles (a career-high), 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup.
That duo helped hold Michigan State to only two touchdowns on seven red-zone chances.
“It's great,” Watson said Saturday. “It's something that's going to propel us moving forward throughout the season and into the future and show in high-pressure moments that we can do what we need to do to win a football game.”
Illinois’ offense is ranked 100th or worse in scoring offense, total offense, passing offense and time of possession in part because of the injuries at quarterback but perhaps turned a corner against the Spartans.
After getting battered by Michigan and Minnesota, redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr., in his third career start, led the Illini on a game-winning 75-yard drive in the final minutes by going 3-for-3 for 42 yards in the drive. His 16-yard pass with 1:35 remaining capped a day in which Illinois went 3-for-3 in the red zone.
Relying heavily on tailback Kendrick Foster (17 carries, 146 yards and two TDs vs. State), George Jr. sees an offense getting more explosive and playing more sound (Illinois averaging only four penalties over the last four games).
“College football is hard and just being able to grind and come out with a victory against a very good team, it gives you confidence,” he said. “It can definitely spring you forward.”
Smith got things started with a bang in September with a 52-3 win over Murray State but since then has not lost to a power five team with a winning record by fewer than 15 points. Needing to win its final three games to quality for a bowl game, Smith knows a win Saturday – breaking a 14-year losing streak in Madison – will be another step in the right direction.
“We know we're going to have to be at the top of our game,” Smith said. “We'll need to play better than we did this past week. We realize who we're playing, but what an opportunity for our young football team to have a chance to play a great team like that, to have to go on the road and play a better game than we played this past week."