Michigan State was cruising — until it wasn't. The Spartan offense was scoring — until it stopped. MSU's defense was playing fast and smart — until it couldn't anymore.
That was when everything, for the first time in weeks, was going right. But, with five minutes remaining, the Spartans clung to a one-point advantage. And with five seconds left, Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters connected with Daniel Barker for a five-yard touchdown to give the Illini a 37-34 lead, which was one enough to complete an insane second-half comeback in East Lansing.
With the loss, the Spartans' skid grew to four games.
"Extremely disappointing game," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said."The game was under control in the first half. When you look at it, it was a tale of two halves.
Illinois flips the script:
The Spartans at one point held a 25-point lead over Illinois. But with five minutes remaining, it was reduced to one. Following Coghlin's field goal, Michigan State's offense punted on four consecutive possessions, fumbled a snap and threw a pick-six, and the Illini made them pay.
Josh Imatorbhebhe out-ran Shakur Brown on a crossing route for an 83-yard touchdown to bring Illinois within two scores at 31-17. Then, Reggie Corbin added a six-yard touchdown run to make it 31-24.
A fumbled snap on Michigan State's next play set the Illini offense back up inside the 10-yard line with a chance to tie the game. However, Brown intercepted Peters in the end zone to keep Michigan State's lead at seven points.
Peters finished 22-for-42 for 369 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while Imatorbhebhe added four catches for 178 yards and two scores. His first touchdown came on the final play of the first half.
"I love having him on our team and love playing with Josh," senior center Doug Kramer said. "You never know when he's going to have an 80-yard play or something like that, you love players like that. Having big explosive plays, that's what a receivers supposed to do. He does that every day in practice so it shows on game day".
On the ensuing possession Lewerke threw an interception that was returned for a 76-yard touchdown by Sydney Brown. James McCourt missed the extra point and the Spartan lead dwindled to 31-30.
"We moved the ball effectively, we had 500+ yards, but you can't turn the ball over and give up big plays," Dantonio said. "If you take those two things away, you win the football game and you walk away."
Matt Coghlin's 45-yard field goal with three minutes left put the Illini in a position where only a touchdown could win the game.
On forth-and-17, Peters connected with Imatorbhebhe for a 37-yard gain. On fourth-and-goal, Josh Butler was called for a pass interference to extend the game
Two plays later, Peters and Barker answered the bell.
"Unbelievable," Kramer. "It still hasn't sunk in yet. I am speechless right now.
Spartans bring back neon jerseys — and offense returns, too:
During its three-game losing streak, Michigan State scored a total of two touchdowns — one against Ohio State and Penn State and none against Wisconsin. Against the Illini, the Spartans doubled that — but it still wasn't enough to win the game.
The Spartans kept the Illinois defense on its heels in the first half, mixing in a strong blend of runs, run/pass options and passes downfield with success.
On its first offensive possession, Michigan State raced down the field on a 78-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown plunge from Elijah Collins to put the Spartans up 7-0.
The Spartans, who were without senior wideout Darrell Stewart Jr., received major contributions from veteran receivers as well as newcomers in his absence.
Following a 40-yard field goal by McCourt, Michigan State used a 21-yard pass from Brian Lewerke to Cody White, which set up a 42-yard touchdown run by Lewerke on the next play.
Lewerke connected with true freshman Tre Mosley for an 18-yard touchdown to increase Michigan State's lead to 21-3 early in the second quarter.
White finished with a team-high seven catches for 128 yards, while Mosley — who caught his first-career touchdown and also made his first start, added three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Lewerke finished 19-for-36 for 251 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He added 96 yards on 11 carries on the ground. Following his touchdown run, the fifth-year senior became the first quarterback in Michigan State history to throw for 7,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards during his career.
After a muffed kick return, Collins added a six-yard touchdown run to expand MSU's lead to 28-3.
Collins rushed for 170 yards on 20 carries, marking the first time he's cross the 100-yard plateau since his first-career start against Western Michigan back in Week 2. Behind a young offensive line — true freshmen J.D. Duplain and Nick Samac started at left guard and center respectively — the Spartan finished with 275 yards on the ground.
That same offensive intensity wasn't there for MSU in the second, as the Spartans scored only six points after halftime on two Coghlin field goals.
Michigan State (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) travels to Ann Arbor next weekend to play Michigan in the Battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy (noon, FOX).
"We've just got to come together and push forward," Collins said following the loss. 'We've got a big game next week, so we can't sit around and be sorry for ourselves. We've got stuff to do, we've got things to correct. We've got to come out and fire in all cylinders, next week especially.