EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Lovie Smith and Illinois are now eligible for a bowl after the biggest comeback in school history.
The Illini did it by forcing turnovers — no surprise there — and when that wasn’t enough, Brandon Peters and Josh Imatorbhebhe were there to keep the rally going.
Peters threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Barker with 5 seconds left, giving the Illini a 37-34 victory over Michigan State on Saturday night. Illinois trailed 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 entering the fourth. The Illini had never completed a comeback from more than 20 points behind.
“They don’t crown champions after one half of ball,” said Smith, now in his fourth season as Illinois’ coach. “We knew going out that we would have to stop them.”
Down 34-30, Illinois (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) converted fourth-and-17, then drew a pass interference flag in the end zone on another fourth-down pass. It was second-and-goal when Peters patiently rolled out to his right and found Barker open in the back of the end zone.
“They played zone coverage,” Peters said. “The play was built that if they played zone to look to the back of the end zone. They covered it up pretty well, but I extended the play and the DB flowed with me and (Barker) did a good job stepping into the hole, and I just found him.”
Peters threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
The Illini are bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. They’ve forced 26 turnovers this season, including four Saturday. This was their fourth straight win.
Down 28-3, Illinois began its comeback when Peters threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Imatorbhebhe on the final play of the first half. It wasn’t so much a Hail Mary as it was just a long pass to a single-covered receiver deep down the field — one of several puzzling mistakes by Michigan State.
“We moved the ball effectively, had 500-plus yards,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You can’t turn the ball over, and then you can’t give up big plays.”
Down 31-10, Imatorbhebhe scored on an 83-yard catch-and-run with 14:48 left in the fourth. Then Reggie Corbin scored on a 6-yard run to make it 31-24.
The Spartans (4-5, 2-4) then lost a fumble, giving the Illini the ball at the Michigan State 8-yard line. But Peters’ pass to the end zone was intercepted by Shakur Brown.
The reprieve was only temporary for the collapsing Spartans. Brian Lewerke’s third interception of the game was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Sydney Brown. That would have tied the game, but James McCourt missed the extra point.
“There’s definitely a shift in momentum, and we tried to get it back on our side,” Lewerke said.
Michigan State’s Matt Coghlin kicked a 46-yard field goal with 3:17 remaining to make it 34-30. Peters completed a 37-yard pass to Imatorbhebhe on fourth-and-17, and before long, it was first-and-goal from the 1.
The Spartans forced Illinois into a fourth-down situation from the 4, and Peters’ pass to Caleb Reams fell incomplete. But Reams and Josh Butler got tangled, and the Michigan State defensive back was called for pass interference. The Illini finally scored with 5 seconds left.
Illinois could actually have been down a lot more by halftime. Linebacker Milo Eifler was ejected in the first quarter for what the official said was a punch he threw.
Michigan State could have added more points in the second quarter, but Lewerke had a pass intercepted in the end zone, and another picked off at the Illinois 19.
Dantonio was in no mood to discuss big-picture issues about Michigan State’s future. He answered “next question” to a query about what he’d say to fans concerned about the state of the program, and what needs to happen to turn things around.
Illinois: What a way for the Illini to qualify for a bowl. Peters, Imatorbhebhe and Barker had big games offensively, and a winning streak that began with a shocking upset of Wisconsin on Oct. 19 is still going.
Michigan State: It was simply an appalling loss for the Spartans, who now have dropped four straight as their season has gone from bad to worse. They turned the ball over and allowed long passes in situations when only a long pass could really hurt them.
Illinois: The Illini are off next weekend before playing at Iowa on Nov. 23.
Michigan State: The Spartans play at rival Michigan on Saturday.