For the first five possessions, Illinois looked like it would be in for a long afternoon.
26 yards, zero first downs and zero points. That was the stat line for the Illini offense before they got the ball one final time in the first half. After such a miserable 27 minutes, it looked like Lovie Smith would be elated to just run out the clock and head into the locker room down 6-0. Considering the circumstances, that alone would’ve been considered a small victory in Champaign.
Instead of running three straight plays and trying to milk the clock, Illinois – without top receiver Malik Turner and third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr. – decided it would try to create some confidence heading into halftime.
What it got, was a momentum booster for the final three games of the season.
George and running back Kendrick Foster engineered an 11-play, 73-yard drive with less than three minutes left in the half, capped by a 19-yard TD run by Foster to give the Illini a 7-6 lead heading into the half. One drive seemed to cure the woes that were hindering Illinois.
The second half became a different game.
On its first possession of the third quarter, Foster ripped off a 64-yard TD run that gave Illinois a 14-9 lead. And then the flood gates opened.
As the two teams traded punches in a back-and-forth bout, Illinois found itself in the same position it was in at the end of the first half. It was trailing Michigan State with less than three minutes left and the offense on the field.
Illinois didn’t follow the same recipe it did in the first half, but the end result was the same. George found Sam Mays open in the end zone for a 16-yard TD reception to put the Illini ahead 31-27 with under two minutes to play.
A stop on 4th-and-3 with fewer than :20 left in the game secured Smith’s second B1G win and kept bowl eligibility alive for the Illini as they improved to 3-6 on the year.
Heading into the final three weeks of the season, Illinois needed this type of win. Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are the remaining opponents on the schedule, easily the most difficult stretch of the year. Sure, the Illini have had challenges throughout the year – North Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan – but they’ve not had to face that type of talent in consecutive weekends. Another loss – particularly in heartbreaking fashion – would’ve compounded Illinois’ problems as it prepares to battle the best in the B1G West.
Thankfully, Smith wasn’t content with a six-point deficit heading into the locker room this weekend. He showed faith in his players. They delivered. It gave them the confidence to compete with Michigan State for the rest of the afternoon.
If Illinois sits on the ball to close out the first two quarters, it’s still in the game. And an opening drive for the Spartans that ended in a field goal certainly wouldn’t have been the icing on the cake. There would still have been plenty of time to get things going offensively.
But would George have delivered on the final possession? Would the rest of the team had the confidence to deliver in that type of situation if they hadn’t gone through something similar just 30 game minutes earlier?
That’s a hard question to answer. But it’s hard to imagine that didn’t play a major role in the second half offensive output and the final drive in Saturday’s contest.
Illinois now has something to build on heading into next week’s game against Wisconsin. The Badgers are more talented and will cause more issues than Michigan State, that’s for sure. But Smith found some things that worked.
Foster finished with 146 rushing yards and a pair of TDs. George tossed a pair of TDs and didn’t throw an interception, either. There’s some life there.
Saturday’s win over Michigan State may have not changed the outlook of the season. In several big games this year, Illinois hasn’t been competitive. In games like this, it has typically found ways to fumble away a win. If Smith can get his team to play the way it did in the second half, though, this can be a competitive bunch, injuries and all.
How much momentum did the Illini build on that final drive in the first half? How long will it last?
Those are questions we’ll have answered next week when they travel to Camp Randall Stadium.