There were certain points and plays during Illinois' historic comeback against Michigan State Saturday night that had Illini players knowing they were going to pull off the impossible.
"The second quarter drive to end the half," quarterback Brandon Peters said. "That put an exclamation point to start the comeback. Our defense came out and forced turnovers which helped us too."
On the final play before halftime, Peters, who finished 22 for 42 for 369 yards, three scores and an interception, chucked the ball into the end zone and connected with Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 46-yard touchdown pass to bring the Illini within 28-10, and send his team into the locker room with momentum.
"The pick six, honestly," running back Dre Brown said. "That happened, and I knew that we were going to win this game. It wasn't, 'we might keep it close,' it was 'we are about to win this game.'"
On the ensuing Michigan State drive after Shakur Brown intercepted Peters in the end zone, Lewerke threw one of his three interceptions to Sydney Brown, who returned it 76 yards for a touchdown. A converted extra point would have tied the game at 31-31 with under five minutes left. However, James McCourt pushed the kick wide left and the Illini trailed 31-30.
It wasn't enough to kill Illinois' momentum as it completed the largest comeback in school history in its 37-34 win in East Lansing.
Michigan State's lead grew as high as 25 points in the second quarter. With five seconds left, it completely evaporated when Peters connected with Daniel Barker for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
The two aforementioned plays were major parts of the Illinois comeback timeline that was brewing since the second quarter. Michigan State could have stopped the process. But missed opportunities and dreadful turnovers flipped the game like a hot pancake.
“I feel like they came out and out-executed us in the second half,” senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said.
The Spartans were on their way to extending a 28-3 lead in the second quarter. On second-and-five from the Illinois eight-yard line, Lewerke threw to true freshman wideout Tre Mosley in the endzone. The ball hit off of his hands and was intercepted by Stanley Green. But, the Illini had to punt the ball back.
On Michigan State's next drive, Lewerke was intercepted again by Brown. This time, the Illini made them pay with Imatorbhebhe's touchdown before the break.
“On the first one with nine seconds to go, we rushed three and dropped eight in a three-deep zone," Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said. "It looked like the corner got turned around a little bit, but he wasn't playing well with his back to the sideline, I do know that. Playing through the sideline is more difficult when you don't have vision on the ball.”
The Spartans came out of the half, drove down to the one-yard line and had another opportunity to put the game out of reach. But, they had to settle for a 23-yard Matt Coghlin field goal to extend MSU's lead to 31-10 because Lewerke was stepped on by one of his lineman and fell in the backfield.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Because this is when Illinois' magic act hit peak incredible status.
On the first play of the quarter, Imatorbhebhe out-raced Spartan cornerback Shakur Brown for a 83-yard touchdown and cut into MSU's lead at 31-17.
After a three-and-out by Michigan State's offense, the Illini found the endzone again, this time on a six-yard touchdown run by Reggie Corbin. Suddenly, the Spartans' lead was down to seven.
On the ensuing play, Lewerke mishandled the snap from true freshman Nick Samac, who made his first career start for the injured Matt Allen, and the Illini recovered inside the 10-yard line.
“Obviously missed the snap. It was in the air, it was catchable," Lewerke said. "A little fast but I still got to catch it.”
The Spartans survived the blunder when Brown got his revenge, intercepting Peters on third-and-goal. Michigan State worked its way over midfield, but on third-and-10 at the Illinois 45, Sydney Brown flipped the scripts.
“The corner was dropping so I tried to lead him a ton on the corner, like a back-shoulder-type throw on the corner, so it wasn’t a great throw,” Lewerke said.
The Spartans settled for an important 45-yard Coghlin field goal, which extended their lead to 34-30, and meant only an Illinois touchdown could win it the game. But Peters and the Illini offense were up to the task.
On fourth-and-17 from their own 44-yard line, Peters connected with Imatorbhebhe for a 31-yard game to extend the drive, the game and move the Illini deep into MSU territory.
“'Oh man, that’s a big time play.' That's all I thought," Williams said. "'That's a big time play, we got to keep fighting. It ain’t in the end zone. It's four points, we're still up.'”
Dantonio called that play a "backbreaker"
On fourth-and-goal for Michigan State's 4-yard line, senior cornerback Josh Butler appeared to end the game with a deflected pass, but was called for pass interference to give the Illini one last life.
“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.
"They made the call – they got to deal with the call. They got to measure up to calling their area and go in their arena – the officials." Dantonio said, "I'm not going to whine about it but we put ourselves down there – they got themselves down there against some of the things that we were doing.”
Two plays later, the comeback was complete.
“It's how you finish,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after the game. “You gotta keep fighting. It's always about the next play, there were a lot of disappointing moments in that game, but you don't have time to harp on it, you have to move on to the next play. As it turns out, we didn't give him an opportunity to get the ball back. So it all worked out the way we needed it to.”