By David Mercer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — With the two quarterbacks in front of him on the depth chart down with injuries, Jeff George Jr. has spent much of his redshirt sophomore season at Illinois on mop-up duty, manning the controls for a struggling offense.
But on Dads Day at Memorial Stadium Saturday, the son of longtime NFL quarterback and Illinois legend Jeff George and the Illini defense pulled off a comeback that no doubt made the elder George’s day.
George Jr. threw a touchdown pass with 1:25 left to take the lead, and with 19 seconds left Illinois’ defense came up with a fourth-down stop at its own 15 to pull out a 31-27 win.
The victory was Illinois’ (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) first over the Spartans since 2006, and ended a two-game losing streak in which Illinois coach Lovie Smith said he forgot how the team celebrates a win.
“We had forgotten what it’s like. They had to take me through the routine of singing the ‘Alma Mater,’” he said. “There’s no excitement like a winning locker room, just genuine emotion.”
Across the stadium from the jubilant Illinois locker room, the Spartans struggled to explain how this one got away.
The Spartans (2-7, 0-6) have lost seven straight, are off to their worst Big Ten start ever and are assured of a losing season. They dominated the game on paper, outgaining Illinois 490-304. Eight times Michigan State moved the ball to the Illinois 36-yard line or further, but turned those possessions into just two touchdowns and four field goals. Michigan State’s 10 penalties for 89 yards hurt.
“Very disappointing,” Spartan coach Mark Dantonio said several times in his postgame news conference, shaking his head as he searched for an explanation. “You kick four field goals, that sounds good. (But) it means there’s missed opportunities in the red zone.”
George was just 13-29 for 140 yards, but he had two touchdown passes. The second touchdown was the 16-yard strike to Sam Mays that sealed the win.
“Obviously I feel like I made some mistakes,” George said. “The whole point of the game is to weather the storm and keep grinding.”
Michigan State had a shot late, driving the ball to the Illinois 15. But on fourth down with 19 seconds left in the game, Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive end Carroll Phillips stuffed quarterback Damion Terry’s draw for a 1-yard loss.
Terry came into the game in the fourth when Tyler O’Connor left with an injury.
Michigan State: O’Connor and Terry proved Saturday that the Spartans aren’t lost at quarterback. With Brian Lewerke out for the season, O’Connor was steady. He kept plays alive with his feet on a key third-quarter drive that ended with a touchdown and tied the game at 17-17. And when Terry came off the bench, he was cool under pressure.
Illinois: Illinois came into the season talking up its defense, then spent eight weeks struggling to stop the run and, at times, avoid penalties and other mistakes that cost the Illini games. On Saturday, the Illini defense looked as good as initially promised. Playing with short fields and against an offense that has shown it can move the ball, defense kept the Illini in the game Saturday until the offense woke up.
Kendrick Foster’s day was almost lost in the late-game heroics, but Illinois’ junior running back was the spark that got the Illini offense going. He had 17 carries for 146 yards and two touchdowns, the second a 64-yarder. He has three scores of 56 yards or more this season, all of that after almost leaving the program last November.
It’s been a while since the Spartans finished a season with a losing record (2006, 4-8) or no bowl trip to look forward to (2009, a 6-7 season that ended at the Alamo Bowl).
Six wins and a bowl remain possible for Illinois, but there’s no margin for error. The Illini will have to win the rest of their games — at Wisconsin, at home against Iowa and at Northwestern.
Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell left the game with an apparent leg injury in the third quarter. Details about the injury were not available. O’Connor was injured in a pileup after running for a first down. He stayed seated on the sideline as Spartan staff talked to him for a long period. Dantonio did not have details about the injury but said he did not believe his fifth-year quarterback suffered a concussion.
Illinois starting quarterback Wes Lunt for the second straight week dressed for the game but did not play because of the back injury he suffered Oct. 8 against Purdue. Second-stringer Chayce Crouch is out for the season.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Rutgers Saturday. With Ohio State and Penn State left after that, the game is Michigan State’s best shot to get a third win this season.
Illinois: The Illini head to Madison to face the No. 8 Badgers on Saturday.