EAST LANSING, Mich. — Get the football on the left side of the field for Brandon Peters.
That was the mindset of where Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith wanted to put the Illini’s quarterback during the waning moments of Saturday’s stunning 37-34 comeback win by Illinois at Michigan State in front of 63,370 fans at Spartan Stadium.
“All I was trying to do was get the ball on the left,” Smith said, “so I could sprint (Brandon) out to the right during that last play.”
Peters eventually did. And Daniel Barker was the happy recipient of the 5-yard pass in the end zone from Peters to the Illinois tight end with five seconds remaining for arguably one of the most historic touchdowns in Illinois history.
“Just complete pure ecstatic,” Smith said was his reaction. “I’m so happy for these kids. These guys have just been busting their tails, and they don’t stop fighting.”
The touchdown pass to Barker was the sixth play Illinois had in the final minute inside the Michigan State 5-yard line after Peters completed a 37-yard pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe on fourth-and-17 earlier in the drive that set up the Illini at Michigan State’s 19-yard line.
Smith wanted to run the ball at first once the Illini were within a yard of Michigan State’s end zone after a run of 6 yards by Dre Brown and a 12-yard catch from Brown set up Illinois in that position.
“We were trying to run an unbalanced outside zone play (at first) because they do a great job of jumping what we call bear front, and they just crab and take out your legs. It’s hard to run anything up inside,” Smith said. “We fumbled the damn snap, and it was like a nightmare in front of us because that’s the last thing we wanted to have happen.”
Peters recovered from that fumble to regain his composure, with a pass intended for Caleb Reams on fourth-and-goal from the 4 drawing a pass interference call on Michigan State and giving the Illini a new set of downs to work with at the 2-yard line.
After the Spartans stuffed Brown on a 3-yard loss, Peters found Barker wide open in the back of the end zone.
“We were destined for this,” Barker said. “We worked so hard in the offseason for this.”
Barker, who only had 12 receptions for 188 yards and two touchdowns this season before Saturday’s game, finished with two catches for 21 yards. None bigger, though, than his game-winning catch.
“I saw the ballgame,” Barker said when asked what he saw on the play from his perspective. “I saw the safety beat me to my corner spot, so I stayed back and got into the open area. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That’s Brandon for you. He’s never flustered. He just handles any moment he gets put in.”
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Cradling a bowling ball he said the Illinois football team brought with it to Spartan Stadium from the new bowling alley at the Smith Center back in Champaign, Dele Harding felt the weight of said object after a few minutes.
“My right arm is definitely getting tired, man,” Harding said with a laugh.
The Illinois linebacker and Big Ten leading tackler registered a game-high 14 tackles during Saturday’s win that made a bowl game this season a possibility.
But Harding was one of a few Illini who made significant contributions on defense. Perhaps none, though, was bigger than Sydney Brown. The sophomore safety, who also contributed 13 tackles, returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Illini’s deficit to 31-30 with 4:53 left in the fourth quarter. James McCourt missed the extra point, though, before Illini’s late-game heroics on offense delivered another signature win this season.
“We have a goal to take the ball away, but the first goal on defense is to score,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Normally when you get an interception like that, if you can beat the first wave of skill guys, you have linemen that you should be able to get by. I just know that is our mindset to get it in the end zone. We needed that play at the time.”
It was the third straight game the Illini returned an interception for a touchdown after Harding and Nate Hobbs did so against Rutgers on Nov. 2 and Tony Adams had one at Purdue on Oct. 26.
“At the University of Illinois, it is not a good defensive game unless we can take the ball away,” Lovie Smith said. “It can’t be a great defensive game unless we can score.”
Fellow safety Stanley Green wasn’t surprised to see Brown take his fourth-quarter interception all the way back for a touchdown.
“No matter how many sprints we run in practice, Sydney Brown is going to be first,” Green said. “Just to see him get two interceptions in the game and a pick six, I’m so proud of him. He never complains, no matter if he’s first string, second string or when he was hurt.”
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Illinois has eight commits in the 2020 class with the early signing period a little more than a month away.
With no game next Saturday and with the Illini not playing again until Nov. 23 at No. 18 Iowa, the Illini coaches will spend the majority of next week on the recruiting trail.
Lovie Smith’s message to potential recruits, not just in the 2020 class, but future classes?
“Just get on board as much as anything,” the Illinois coach said. “We have the program heading in the right direction. Recruiting is big for us, and it’ll be a lot easier recruiting next week as we go out talking about Illinois football than some of the previous bye weeks we’ve had.”
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The week started off on a positive note for Jake Hansen. The Illinois redshirt junior linebacker found out Monday he was one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, the annual honor given to college football’s best linebacker.
And he knew what was in front of him for the first time in his Illinois career.
“We have a great opportunity to go bowling and to go to a good bowl,” Hansen said earlier this week. “That hasn’t been done in a little bit here, so we’re excited for that.”
But on Saturday, Hansen wasn’t on the field at Spartan Stadium, missing his first game this season.
He, along with defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. and receivers Ricky Smalling and Dominic Stampley, didn’t make the road trip because of injuries.
Hansen’s injury gave Khalan Tolson his first career start, with the sophomore linebacker from St. Petersburg, Fla., recording nine tackles and forcing a fumble. Tolson also tipped a pass late in the first half that Brown was unable to slide under and snag for his first interception of the game.
“Khalan was working all week at practice,” Green said.
The Illinois linebacker depth took another hit early in Saturday’s game. Milo Eifler, who was making his 10th straight start, was ejected for throwing a punch in the first quarter.
Eifler’s absence meant more playing time for Dawson DeGroot, who contributed with 10 tackles.
“The communication factor was key,” Harding said. “I had young guys to the left and right of me, so I was kind of telling them to watch for with alignments and little stuff like that so they could be prepared before the snap. They definitely made plays.”
Green echoed that sentiment.
“Dawson was with the twos all week in practice,” Green said. “He wasn’t expecting to play. I’m just so proud of those two.”Matt Daniels