Michigan State coach talks about losing to Illinois after leading 28-3 in the first half on Saturday. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Midway through the second quarter on Saturday, every frustration that had dominated Michigan State’s season had washed away.
The Spartans, losers of three straight to a string of top-10 teams, were rolling like they had anticipated all season. They were up by 25 points and it seemed a blowout victory was in store against Illinois.
In most seasons, maybe that would have happened. But in a season that has been spiraling out of control for more than a month, Michigan State completed an epic collapse, giving up 27 fourth-quarter points as Illinois scored with five seconds to play to rally for a 37-34 victory at Spartan Stadium.
“Extremely disappointing game,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It was a tale of two halves.
“Extremely disappointed and nobody's more disappointed than our players and coaches. One of the tougher games we've experienced, certainly. I thought we were ready to play and we were ready to play, but we've got to play through.”
Meaning, the Spartans (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) need to play a full four quarters. It didn’t happen on Saturday and now Michigan State heads into the final three games of the season needing to win two just to become bowl eligible.
“I’ve had a lot of tough ones,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “I have taken a lot of tough losses in my time, but it's not one of the toughest ones. All of them hurt.”
This one hurt because of how it played out.
Michigan State was in complete control in the first half as Elijah Collins had a pair of touchdown runs, while Brian Lewerke ran for another and tossed an 18-yard touchdown pass to freshman Tre Mosley, the first score of his career.
But by late in the second quarter, there were signs things were changing.
Lewerke hit Mosley in the end zone for what looked like a touchdown, but the ball was jarred loose and intercepted by Illinois. Later in the quarter, as Michigan State was looking to add points, another Lewerke pass was tipped and intercepted. Illinois answered with a 46-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Peters to Josh Imatorbhebhe on the final play of the half.
The play foreshadowed what would happen over the final 15 minutes of the game.
“The second-quarter drive to end the half. That put an exclamation point to start the comeback,” Peters explained. “Our defense came out and forced turnovers which helped us too.”
The third quarter was the next chance for Michigan State to let opportunity slide by. The Spartans had a first-and-goal from the Illinois on the opening drive of the second half but settled for a field goal. It didn’t appear to be a big deal for the rest of the quarter, but by the first play of the fourth quarter, the momentum began to swing.
That’s when Peters hit Imatorbhebhe for an 83-yard touchdown to make it 31-17 and the doubt started to creep in for the Spartans, something that can happen when a team hasn’t won a game in a month-and-a-half.
“It hurts all of us,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “We were up (31-10) and they came all the way back and won. I mean, we haven't won a game since what, September 28? We wanted this game, and it hurts.”
Michigan State had its chances to put the game away from there but failed to make a big play while Illinois started to come up big time after time. Following a Michigan State punt, the Fighting Illini marched down the field in five plays and pulled within 31-24 on Reggie Corbin’s 6-yard run.
The Spartans appeared to avert disaster after that when Lewerke lost a fumbled snap and Illinois was first-and-goal at the MSU 8. But an interception by Shakur Brown stopped the Illini.
From there, Michigan State began to march down the field, entering Illinois territory before Lewerke’s third interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Illinois’ Sydney Brown. A missed extra point left Michigan State up by one with 4:53 to play.
Again, the Spartans could have put the game away but settled for a Matt Coghlin field goal to take a 34-30 lead with 3:17 left. It proved to be too much time as Illinois took two plays to reach midfield.
But the defense started to rise up, sacking Peters then forcing an incomplete pass to set up fourth-and-17 from the Illinois 44. The Spartans decided to bring pressure and Peters hit Imatorbhebhe for a 37-yard gain for a first down. Peters, the Michigan transfer, threw for a career-high 369 yards while Imatorbhebhe had four grabs for 178 yards.
“They just made plays on those deep balls,” Simmons said. “I mean, that's honestly what hurt us. If that guy doesn't catch that pass on fourth-and-17, we're having a whole different discussion right now.”
But Imatorbhebhe did make the catch and Illinois eventually reached the MSU 1 with a first-and-goal. Michigan State's defense looked like it had one stop left as it stuffed Peters twice then forced an incompletion on third down. On fourth-and-goal from the 4, cornerback Josh Butler was called for pass interference.
Two plays later, Peters hit Daniel Barker for the winning pass with five seconds to play to make Illinois (6-4, 4-3) bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
“I've said pass interference is a very inconsistent call right now in the Big Ten Conference and across the country,” Dantonio said. “I didn't see it as pass interference. I thought both players were trying to play the ball and both players were pushing off somewhat.”
Collins finished with 170 yards rushing, the first time he’s gone over 100 yards since Week 2 against Western Michigan, while Cody White had seven receptions for 128 yards.
Now the Spartans head into the rivalry next week at Michigan losers of four straight and trying to salvage just about anything from this season.
“I'll say the same thing that I told our football team last week,” Dantonio said, “and I'll say that now publicly, ‘How strong are we? Are you strong enough to measure up? Are you strong enough to push through?’ That's part of life. I say this all the time when we lose, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you experience something like this.”