CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois extended Michigan State’s losing streak to seven games with a dramatic 31-27 victory Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
Michigan State quarterback Damion Terry was stopped on a fourth-and-2 play at the Illinois 15-yard line with less than 20 seconds to play, ending the Spartans’ hopes at a comeback victory. Michigan State had taken a 27-24 lead with 2:52 left to play on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Terry to wide receiver R.J. Shelton on a fourth-and-4 play, but Illinois regained the lead on a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeff George Jr. to Sam Mays with 1:35 left in the game.
Michigan State falls to 2-7 on the season and is now 0-6 in the Big Ten. Illinois improves to 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the conference.
Five things we learned
- Tyler O’Connor has guts. And some pretty good feet. He needed them, as much as Illinois defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips were harassing him all game. He spun out of sacks a couple of times, and either was able to throw the ball away or found receivers downfield for completions. He left the game in the fourth quarter after converting a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak for a first down.
- Gerald Holmes didn’t play until the third quarter but he gained 78 yards and scored once on 12 carries, while adding another 15 yards on 3 receptions. Holmes entered the game after LJ Scott left with an injury. Scott came into the game with consecutive 100-yard performances against Maryland and Michigan, but Illinois held him to 50 yards on 14 carries.
- Michigan State can’t get out of its own way. Still. The Spartans committed six penalties that cost them 50 yards in the first half. But, as is often the case, those penalties were more damaging than the yardage. Three holding calls contributed directly to stalling two drives in the first half, forcing punts in situations where field goal attempts should have been the minimum. Michigan State ended the game with 10 penalties for 89 yards.
- The defense still isn’t as disciplined as it needs to be. It took Illinois just four plays to regain the lead after Michael Geiger’s 28-yard field goal put Michigan State up, 9-7, in the third quarter. Defenders at all three levels vacated the middle, leaving a big hole for Kendrick Foster to run through for a 64-yard touchdown. Illinois started the game with five consecutive three-and-outs but ended with four touchdown drives of 70 yards or more.
- Dave Warner can be creative calling plays. The Michigan State offensive coordinator has come under fire for his conservative play-calling, but with the Spartans trailing 17-9 in the third quarter, Warner used some well-timed misdirection to help them reach the end zone for the first time. He called for a double-reverse run to Felton Davis III on one play, and then a play-action pass to the back side for tight end Josiah Price on the next play.
Jeff George Jr. hit Sam Mays for what proved to be the game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass with 1:35 left to play. The Illini were helped by two defensive pass interference penalties on a scoring drive that officially covered 75 yards on four plays.
Can Damion Terry produce when called upon? Yes. The junior came off the bench in place of O’Connor in the fourth and led a pair of scoring drives put Michigan State in position to win its first game since Sept. 17 at Notre Dame.
How is O’Connor? The fifth-year senior quarterback left the game with what appeared to be a concussion in the fourth quarter. O’Connor was injured after successfully sneaking for a first down on a fourth-and-1 play from the Michigan State 40.
Michigan State converted just 3 of 6 red zone-possessions into points last week against Michigan. This week against Illinois, the Spartans were 5 of 8 scoring in the red zone, but had the ball in Illinois territory on 10 of 13 possessions. They managed just two touchdowns and four field goals from Michael Geiger.
What it means
Nothing is a given for Michigan State. Illinois is as downtrodden of a program in the Big Ten as there is, but the Spartans are right there with the Illini, at least for this season.