“We’re going bowling!”
Those three words out of head coach Lovie Smith’s mouth signaled the end of a drought of postseason football in Champaign.
The Illini (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) completed the largest comeback in school history against Michigan State in East Lansing, coming back from being down 25 points in the second quarter to win 37-34.
The game could not have started worse for the Illini, which were without star middle linebacker Jake Hansen, who did not travel because of injury. The Illini quickly went down 28-3 after a disastrous first and early second quarter during which linebacker Milo Eifler was ejected on the first drive and Illinois fumbled a kickoff inside their own 20 to set up an MSU score.
But Illinois began showing signs of life soon after, and that touchdown would be the last Michigan State would score until a field goal with three minutes left in regulation.
In the closing seconds of the first half, quarterback Brandon Peters connected with wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe on a 46-yard touchdown pass. That would be the first of three massive plays made by Imatorbhebhe. The other two came on an 83-yard TD pass on the first play of the fourth quarter and a leaping 37-yard grab on 4th and 16 to keep the Illini’s hopes alive late in the game.
The Illini defense, after looking porous early, forced the Spartans into four turnovers. Three interceptions and a fumble. Two of those interceptions came from sophomore safety Sydney Brown. Brown ran his second INT back 76 yards for a touchdown to bring Illinois within 7 points.
Peters had a record day passing. The junior finished 22 for 42 with 369 yards and three touchdowns. His 369 passing yards are the most allowed by an opposing quarterback at Spartan Stadium in 12 years.
Imatorbhebhe finished his massive game with four receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns. After this performance, Imatorbhebhe moved into second all time on the Illinois single season receiving TD list.
This win puts Illinois at six wins and bowl eligibility with two games still to play in the season. The Illini have won four Big Ten games for the first time since 2010 and two Big Ten road games for the first time since 2010 as well.
Everyone counted this team out early in the season, but the Illini never lost sight of what they could do. They were confident; they were persistent; they were tough, and because of that, the Illini are bowl eligible.