EAST LANSING, Mich. — Did that just happen? Again? Three weeks after a stunning victory against No. 6 Wisconsin, Illinois found a way to top it. ... with the biggest comeback in school history.
And now, they have a 13th game.
“We’re going bowling,” a giddy Lovie Smith said after a 37-34 stunner against Michigan State at chilly Spartan Stadium on Saturday evening. “I’m pumped up for the guys.
“So much has gone into us being in this position. We always talk about starting fast. But it’s about the finish.”
The Illini trailed by 25 in the first half and were down 18 at the break.
Somehow, some way, they pulled it off.
“That’s awesome,” Smith said. “In a tough environment like this, the guys kept battling.”
The corner has officially been turned. Once 2-4 and seemingly headed nowhere, Illinois has now has a four-game Big Ten winning streak for the first time since 2001. That team won the conference title.
Smith got a postgame ride from an unknown lifter.
“I can’t remember an awful lot. I just remember there was all kinds of excitement.” Smith said. “I had most of my family there. My little grandson Jackson was there. He’s going to remember this forever.”
Smith hugged athletic director Josh Whitman, who was certainly thrilled he made the long flight back from Phoenix. He is returning to Arizona on Sunday to watch another basketball game.
“Josh is pumped up on a couple different levels,” Smith said. “One, being a former Fighting Illini player to see our football team come back and to be our leader. Everything we’ve asked for, he’s given us. ‘Josh, we need a new facility. It’s there.’ Just support throughout.”
The celebration continued in the locker room. It’s been five years since the school qualified for a bowl. The only players on the current team who have been to one transferred in.
“You can imagine the excitement in our locker room,” Smith said. “It’s just a feeling that everybody should get a chance to go through.
“If you could see our players’ faces and how much joy. They know what they have gone through to get to this point. For some programs, getting to a bowl game may not be that big of a deal. But our program where we are right now, we needed to cross this hurdle to be able to take more big steps.”
Going into the season, Smith thought his team would be better. Win more games than in 2018 (four).
After six games, there were still plenty of doubters. Not now.
“A lot of people were jumping off the bandwagon,” Smith said. “The guys know how to come back. We’ve seen signs throughout of us being able to play good football.”
Raising the bar
Three weeks ago, the Wisconsin upset was Smith’s biggest at Illinois.
Until Michigan State
“This is, of course, the biggest win we’ve had,” Smith said. “As we went into this week, we talked about this being the biggest game since we’ve been here. So, definitely, this it the biggest win. And the way we won the game that was tough duty. We’ll remember this one.”
He will remember the fourth-and-17 pass from Brandon Peters to Josh Imatorbhebhe that went for 37 yards and kept the winning drive alive.
“It was our last shot to stay in the game,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, I’m going to come down with this ball.’ Brandon threw a perfect ball and I went up and grabbed it. The rest is history. We had to score. It put us in position to score.”
“The game’s over. No bowl games. No celebration,” Smith said. “If the line doesn’t block, maybe he doesn’t make the play or Brandon doesn’t get it there. Pretty special. One for the memory book for sure.”
There were plenty of down moments in the game for Illinois. But the players did as they were taught and moved on to the next play.
Imatorbhebhe had a monster game. The Southern Cal transfer caught four passes for 178 yards and two scores.
What he really wanted was the win.
“That was awesome,” Imatorbhebhe said. “Not just for me, but for the whole team.”
He didn’t doubt the comeback was possible. But ...
“When you look at the scoreboard, it can be discouraging. When people start to make plays, the belief comes back naturally. It did for us.”
Back to the future
It wasn’t the first time Illinois pulled off a comeback for the ages in the state of Michigan.
Twenty years ago, Ron Turner’s guys trailed Tom Brady and Michigan by 20 in Ann Arbor. They rallied for a 35-29 victory.
Quarterback Kurt Kittner led the way. On Saturday, Michigan transfer Peters (how appropriate) took the Kittner role. Peters threw for 369 yards and the winning score to Daniel Barker with 5 seconds left.
“That’s what you judge quarterbacks on: How do they play when the game’s on the line? When you’re down. When you have to make plays. He’s been outstanding,” Smith said.
Peters has gone from deep on the bench with the Wolverines to a star at Illinois.
“I was proud of the way we bounced back in the second half,” Peters said. “That really goes to show you that we have no quit in us.”
It’s always been there. From the beginning of the season.
“There’s never been a doubt in my mind that we could compete,” he said.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.