On a windy afternoon in Champaign, Illinois shorthanded Michigan State put in a gutsy effort against No. 14 Illinois, holding on for a 23-15 upset against the team atop the Big Ten West.
After throwing an interception on the very first play of the game, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne rebounded with a strong performance. He finished with 182 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception.
Missing key pieces, the Spartans’ defense put up a valiant effort, especially in critical situations. Illinois converted a single fourth down attempt in the afternoon on six tries, as Michigan State’s defense made play after play when it mattered most. Reaching the red zone four times, Illinois came away with points just once — MSU’s bend-don’t-break look on defense truly showed up.
After Thorne's opening interception, Illinois started the drive at the Michigan State 41. MSU’s defense gave up a few chunk plays and the Illini found themselves within ten yards of the end zone.
However, following a solid showing against Michigan last weekend, Michigan State’s red zone defense again stood tall when it mattered. Illinois turned the ball over on downs and the Spartan offense started on its own two yard line.
The unit went three-and-out, sending the ball back to Illinois immediately. It took just two plays for the home team to move 59 yards and make the visitors pay for the ineffective offense. Following a rushing play that lost a yard, Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito connected with wide receiver Isaiah Williams for a 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Michigan State’s offense finally got moving on the next drive, offering a response to Illinois’ scoring drive. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson balanced the ground and air game, drawing up six passing plays and five rushing plays on the 72 yard drive.
However, the drive stalled out inside the ten and MSU’s offense was forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the lead to 7-3 Illinois.
After forcing the Illini offense to a stop near midfield, a horrible punt into the wind gave Michigan State solid field position to start its next drive.
A 34-yard catch from redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed flipped field position and a subsequent 16-yard run from redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger put the offense on the goal line.
After a couple of ineffective rushing attempts, Thorne found junior wide receiver Tre Mosley in the end zone for a touchdown. Junior kicker Ben Patton missed the point after attempt, giving Michigan State a 9-7 lead.
On Illinois’ next drive, fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson made a massive play. After drawing up a run on third and medium, the Fighting Illini’s star running back Chase Brown knifed through the Spartan defense for a first down. Henderson, who dropped into coverage, launched himself back into the play and blasted Brown, forcing a fumble. Fifth-year linebacker Aaron Brule recovered and Michigan State’s offense went back to work.
After just one first down, the offense stalled out and the Spartans punted it back to the Illini. A missile from sixth-year senior punter Bryce Baringer put Illinois inside their own ten yard line.
Despite the poor starting field position, Illinois put together a solid drive ending just outside the red zone. Again, Michigan State’s defense buckled down in its own territory and Illinois turned the ball over on downs.
After both offenses traded ineffective drives to start the second half, a special teams gaffe by Illinois handed the Spartans excellent field position. Illinois' punter kicked the ball into a teammate and Michigan State pounced on it at the Illinois 29.
Following a fourth down conversion on the first series (courtesy of Berger), fifth-year senior running back Jarek Broussard capped off the short drive with an 11-yard touchdown run, extending the lead to 16-7.
Illinois shot itself in the foot yet again on the very next drive. Facing a fourth-and-1 on its own 44, a fumble on a pitch play brought the offense back three yards and turned the ball over to Michigan State.
It didn’t take the Spartans long to make the home team pay for the failed fourth down attempt. After a couple of quick passes from Thorne moved the ball 25 yards, Reed burnt a pair of defenders for a wide open 16-yard touchdown reception at the back of the end zone.
However, Illinois refused to go down without a fight. Moving 56 yards in just eight plays, the home team cut the lead down to eight with a seven-yard touchdown catch from Williams.
Michigan State’s offense went three-and-out but thanks to an excellent punt from Baringer, Illinois started off the drive on its own one yard line.
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Down eight, Illinois’ offense went right to work. Michigan State helped the home team out with a couple of poorly timed penalties along the way (a pass interference and horse collar tackle), as the Illini marched all the way down to the red zone.
Yet again, Michigan State’s defense showed up in a critical situation. On fourth and short at the MSU 20 yard line, Illinois elected to attempt the conversion. However, the Spartans stuffed the Illini rushing attempt and forced another turnover on downs.
Illinois had two shots to tie things up in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. On the first drive, Michigan State’s defense battened down the hatches and forced a turnover on downs at the Illinois nine yard line. However, Patton missed a 31-yard field goal with just over a minute left and gave Illinois one last shot to find the equalizer. Again, it was up to the Spartan defense to shut the door on the Illini.
The home team made the visitors sweat, moving deep into Michigan State territory. Ultimately, the Spartans were able to cling on for the upset.
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