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FINAL — Illinois 37, Michigan State 34

Down by 25 points at one point, Illinois won a wild game in East Lansing to extend its Big Ten winning streak to four straight games. 

A 37-yard strike from Brandon Peters to Josh Imatorbhebhe on fourth-and-17 at the Illinois 44-yard line set up the go-ahead score.

On another fourth-down play with 41 seconds left in regulation, a pass interference penalty against Michigan State gave Illinois another opportunity.

Two plays later, Daniel Barker caught a 5-yard pass from Peters in the back right corner of the end zone to give the Illini their first lead of the game with 5 seconds left. 

With the win, Illinois (6-4) became bowl eligible for the first time under Lovie Smith. 

Illinois (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) trailed 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 entering the fourth.

Peters threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns.

The Illini are now bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. They’ve done it by forcing turnovers all season long, including four Saturday.

Down 28-3, Illinois began its comeback when Peters threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe on the final play of the first half. It wasn’t so much a Hail Mary as it was just a long pass to a single-covered receiver deep down the field — the first of several puzzling mistakes by Michigan State.

Down 31-10, Imatorbhebhe scored on an 83-yard catch and run with 14:48 left in the fourth. Then Reggie Corbin scored on a 6-yard run to make it 31-24.

The Spartans (4-5, 2-4) then lost a fumble giving the Illini the ball at the Michigan State 8-yard line. But Peters’ pass to the end zone was intercepted by Shakur Brown.

The reprieve was only temporary for the collapsing Spartans. Brian Lewerke’s third interception of the game was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Sydney Brown. That would have tied the game, but James McCourt missed the extra point.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 30, 4:53 left in fourth quarter

Talk about a fourth quarter of huge swings.

A 76-yard interception return for a touchdown by Sydney Brown cut the Illini deficit to 31-30, but James McCourt missed the extra point.

An unreal final quarter is setting up for what should be a crazy finish. And if Illinois can somehow find a way to rally for an improbable victory, Lovie Smith's program is going to a bowl game.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 24, 11:06 left in fourth quarter

Where was this Illinois offense earlier?

Reggie Corbin just scored on a 6-yard run to cut the Illini deficit to single digits. Maybe falling behind Big Ten teams from Michigan early in the first half is the formula this Illinois team wants to follow?

Strange game, but the Illini are one defensive stop away from giving the offense the ball back with a chance to tie the game. Unreal.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 17, 14:48 left in fourth quarter

Disregard everything I just wrote about the Illinois offense.

Brandon Peters rolled out and lofted a nice pass with touch to Josh Imatorbhehbe, who did the rest in completing an 83-yard touchdown pass that has suddenly, maybe, given the Illini some glimmer of hope.

The Michigan State offense struggled for most of the third quarter, and if the Illinois defense can force a three-and-out or a turnover, then those Michigan State fans still left in Spartan Stadium might start to feel a bit nervous in the cold.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 10, End of third quarter

The third quarter turned into a battle of punters after Michigan State's opening drive netted the Spartans a field goal.

The Illinois offense only managed one first down in the quarter and Brandon Peters is having one of his worst games as the Illini quarterback, completing only 13 of 28 passes for 154 yards.

The Illinois run game has been stifled, too, with only 41 rushing yards through three quarters.

Michigan State's offense has slowed down considerably, too, after its strong start, but the Spartans' defense isn't close to giving up any big plays by the Illini.

Illinois only managed 19 yards of total offense in the quarter. Yikes.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 10, 10:59 left in third quarter

Perhaps the pep talk the Illinois coaches delivered at halftime didn't work.

Because Michigan State bullied the Illini defense on seven straight runs before the defense shored up, holding Michigan State on second-and-goal from the Illini 1-yard line.

But it appeared Illinois would force its third turnover of the game when Tony Adams recovered a Michigan State fumble, but a replay review overturned the call, resulting in a 23-yard field goal by Matt Coghlin to give the Spartans a three-touchdown lead.

What the Illini offense is able to do on this drive is critical if Illinois wants to somehow get back in the game.

Michigan State 28, Illinois 10, Halftime

Illinois has a penchant for falling behind big and then scoring late touchdowns in the first half against Big Ten teams from Michigan this season.

The Illini scored their first TD of the game on a 41-yard pass from Brandon Peters to Josh Imatorbhebhe as time ran out in the second quarter at Spartan Stadium.

But Michigan State still has an 18-point lead after nearly completely outplaying the Illini in the first half. And the Spartans will get the ball to start the second half.

Brandon Peters is 10 of 18 for 136 yards and the one touchdown pass, while his counterpart, Brian Lewerke, is 14 of 22 for 203 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. Lewerke is also MSU's leading rusher with 66 yards on five carries, helped out by his 42-yard touchdown run that gave the Spartans a 14-3 lead in the first quarter.

Stanley Green and Sydney Brown each have an interception for the Illini, helped out by pass breakups by Nate Hobbs on the Green interception and Khalan Tolson on the Brown interception.

The Illinois run game hasn't gotten going, with Reggie Corbin (five carries for 26 yards) and Peters (11 yards on five carries) the top two rushers.

All told, Michigan State has outgained the Illini 336-176 in total offense, with Illinois' last drive of the first half significantly helping out those numbers.

Michigan State 28, Illinois 3, 11:24 left in second quarter

Make that four out of five drives ending in touchdowns for Michigan State.

Justice Williams fumbled the kickoff return twice, with his second cough-up resulting in the Spartans recovering the ball at the Illini's own 22-yard line.

Three plays later, Elijah Collins scooted into the end zone on a 6-yard touchdown run, his second score of the day, to give the Spartans another score.

Simply put, the Illini have to wake up soon, or else this one will get ugly. And the bowl hopes will have to wait for another two weeks before the Illini play at No. 18 Iowa on Nov. 23.

Michigan State 21, Illinois 3, 12:41 left in second quarter

Three of Michigan State's four drives have resulted in touchdowns so far by the Spartans.

And the Illinois offense hasn't mustered much of anything so far.

Not exactly a great recipe for a program trying to become bowl-eligible with a win today.

The latest MSU touchdown happened on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Tre Mosley, with Mosley standing wide open in the back of the end zone to complete his first career touchdown catch (and possibly the easiest TD catch he might ever have).

The Illini need to respond on this drive before this game gets too much out of hand, especially with the Spartans receiving the ball to start the second half.

Michigan State 14, Illinois 3, End of first quarter

Illinois only managed two first downs in the first quarter, compared by eight by the host Spartans.

MSU has outgained the Illini 164-65 in total offense through the first 15 minutes, and Illinois has only converted 1 of 5 third-down opportunities.

The Illinois receivers are struggling to get open against Michigan State's man coverage, with Brandon Peters having to scramble on most of his passes so far. Peters is only 3 of 8 for 41 yards and has two carries for 11 yards.

Michigan State 14, Illinois 3, 5:39 left in first quarter

That didn't take long.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke broke free for a 42-yard touchdown run on a read-option play that had the Illinois defense looking pretty much everywhere except at Lewerke.

The big play by the Spartans, which is a theme already, capped a 75-yard drive in four plays that only took 1:31 off the clock.

Dawson DeGroot got some time at linebacker on that series for Illinois given Milo Eifler's ejection. Illinois needs to do something, though, in order to figure out this Michigan State offense that scored a combined 17 points in its previous three games and lost all three games.

Michigan State 7, Illinois 3, 7:10 left in first quarter

The Illinois offense mustered somewhat of a response, but were unable to find the end zone on its second possession.

A 40-yard field goal by James McCourt, who is celebrating his 22nd birthday today, puts the Illini on the scoreboard.

The Illinois offense looked a bit better on that drive, with Brandon Peters finding Justice Williams on a 33-yard completion to serve as the big play the Illini needed. Peters did a nice job extending the play with his feet and Williams made a difficult catch look easy to put Illinois into Michigan State territory for the first time today.

Now, let's see if the Illinois defense can slow down the Spartans.

Michigan State 7, Illinois 0, 10:07 left in first quarter

Not an ideal start for the Illini. Illinois lost the toss and Michigan State deferred to the second half, giving the Illini the ball first.

But a quick three-and-out ensued, promptly giving the ball to the Spartans.

And Michigan State took advantage, covering 78 yards in 10 plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Elijah Collins.

More bad news for the Illini: starting linebacker Milo Eifler was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty on the touchdown and was ejected for throwing a punch.

That means two of the three Illini starting linebackers in Eifler and Jake Hansen (injury) won't play. Dele Harding will need some help the rest of the way as Collins rushed for 35 yards on four carries on Michigan State's opening drive.

***

With Jake Hansen out, expect to see Khalan Tolson on the field plenty for the Illini.

The sophomore linebacker is likely going to make his first start of the season in place of Hansen. Tolson has played primarily on special teams in his first two seasons with the Illini, and 6-foot, 220-pound Florida native has five tackles on the season, but he could easily reach that or double that total given Michigan State will likely try to assert its run game against the Illini.

Before the Illini went into their locker room about 2 p.m., Tolson was receiving reps with the first-team defense alongside fellow linebackers Milo Eifler and Dele Harding. It's good that Eifler and Harding are veterans that have shown the ability to make plays, but this is a good opportunity for Tolson. We'll see if he can take advantage of it.

Now, on to a long-held tradition I did while I was on the beat from 2013-16. A look at other media picks for today's game.

I went with Michigan State 21-17 in today's News-Gazette, and the panel of writers that are here in the press box with me are somewhat split in trying to pick a winner today.

Fellow N-G scribe Bob Asmussen is going with the Illini 24-21. Here's the rest of the distinguished panel:

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune: Michigan State, 20-13

Joey Wagner, Decatur Herald & Review: Illinois, 24-21

Jeremy Werner, 247sports: Illinois, 23-21

Isaac Trotter, 247sports: Illinois, 27-24

Doug Bucshon, Rivals: Michigan State, 27-21

Erich Fisher, Rivals: Michigan State, 24-21

Matthew Stevens, IlliniMaven on Sports Illustrated: Michigan State, 21-13

Gavin Good, Gatehouse: Michigan State, 28-21

***

The shadows started creeping into Spartan Stadium around a half hour ago, with the sun still out in full force.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and his wife, Hope, are in the building at Spartan Stadium. The couple has a busy travel-packed weekend. They were both in Phoenix for last night's Illinois men's basketball team's 83-71 win at Grand Canyon and arrived in East Lansing this afternoon, with plans to stay the night in Michigan before heading back to Arizona again on Sunday ahead of the 8 p.m. tipoff between the Illini and No. 21 Arizona in Tuscson.

It's chilly (temperature is right around 40 degrees) and a bit windy, with the flags in the south end zone whipping at a pretty good clip.

Fans are slowly filing into the venue that holds 75,005, but would be surprised if it's full. The last Michigan State home game, a 28-7 loss to Penn State on Oct. 26, had an announced attendance of 70,298.

The Marching Illini is here for the first road game this season for Illinois, with Barry Houser's crew situated from the north end zone all the way to around the 25-yard line. Expect to see plenty of them on TV this afternoon as I'm told they will have to stand there the entire game. A small pocket of Illinois fans are nearby in the north end zone, with other smatterings of orange scattered throughout the stadium.

Michigan State has signs opposite the press box honoring a slew of former former standouts in Lorenzo White, Clinton Jones, Gene Washington, John Pingel, Don Coleman, John Hannah, George Webster, Bubba Smith, Brad Van Pelt, Percy Snow and Kirk Gibson.

****

About an hour or so before kickoff. The Illinois specialists were the first Illini players on the field, with Illinois donning orange helmets, white jerseys and orange pants for today's game.

It's the same uniform combination the Illini wore in earlier road wins this season at UConn and at Purdue, so we'll see if the trend continues.

Illinois hasn't played at Spartan Stadium since 2010, with the Illini losing 26-6 in that game. But Illinois won its last game against the Spartans, defeating Michigan State 31-27 in 2016 during Lovie Smith's first season, with Jeff George Jr. completing a late touchdown pass to Sam Mays to help pull off the win.

The last Illinois win in East Lansing? It happened in 2006, with Jason Reda drilling a late field goal to pull off a 23-20 win against the Spartans. Michigan State leads the all-time series 26-18-2 and owns a 13-8-1 advantage against the Illini in East Lansing.

***

Good afternoon college football fans.

This is Matt Daniels, the sports editor of The News-Gazette, filling in for beat writer Scott Richey for today's Illinois football game at Michigan State.

Scott is in Arizona this weekend covering Illinois men's basketball, which opened its trip out west on Friday night with an 83-71 win at Grand Canyon in what was a raucous atmosphere.

He's making the short trek from Phoenix to Tucson, Ariz., today before the Illini (2-0) tip off at No. 21 Arizona (1-0) at 8 p.m. on Sunday.

But back to football. Lovie Smith's program carries a 5-4 record and three-game win streak into today's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against the Spartans (4-4, 2-3).

Big injury news for the Illini, though, just delivered here in the Spartan Stadium press box. Linebacker Jake Hansen, one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award who leads the country in forced fumbles with seven, is out for today's game because of an injury, according to an Illinois spokesman.

Along with Hansen, defensive end Oluwole Betiku, receiver Dominic Stampley and receiver Ricky Smalling didn't make the trip because of injuries.

Michigan State, on the other hand, is reeling, having lost its previous three games, albeit to quality ranked teams in Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

Speculation in East Lansing has centered around coach Mark Dantonio's status, but the Lansing State Journal reported on Friday that Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said 'it's not even a discussion' about firing Dantonio.

The Illini are two-touchdown underdogs, according to the Vegas oddsmakers, but the Illini players brushed that off when asked about it earlier this week.

"We love being the underdogs and being disrespected by that,” Hansen said on Monday. “It’s only going to make us a little bit hungrier.”

The biggest goal, though, is for Illinois to make a bowl game this season. Beat Michigan State today, or win at Iowa on Nov. 23 or beat Northwestern at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Nov. 30, and a bowl trip is in the cards for Illinois, the first one since 2014.

“This is a playoff game for us,” Smith said. “We’re looking at it that way. To be playing football that matters in November, that’s what we’re really most excited about. This is the biggest game we’ve had here since I’ve been here.”

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mdaniels_NG).