Faced with a three-point deficit against Michigan State, Jeff George Jr. engineered an impressive drive to give Illinois a lead with a late touchdown to topple the Spartans.
Saturday’s game against Michigan State (2-7, 0-6 Big Ten) marked Illinois’ (3-6, 2-4) best chance to beat the Spartans in recent memory. It seemed that the Illini squandered this chance when RJ Shelton gave the Spartans a 27-24 lead with 2:52 remaining, but George Jr. responded.
He found Zach Grant along the sidelines to start the drive and a pair of pass interference penalties moved the ball further into Michigan State territory. To cap it off, George Jr. dropped in beautiful corner route to Sam Mays for a go-ahead touchdown with 1:35 left that was reminiscent of his father.
Of course things can’t just be easy, and Michigan State advanced the ball into Illini territory during the final minute. As they had all day, however, the Illinois defense tackled quarterback Damion Terry on fourth down to eke out the win.
By no measure in the box score should this game have been close. It took Illinois nearly 28 minutes to record its first first down, yet the Illini took a 7-6 lead into halftime thanks to a well-executed two-minute drill. Michigan State dominated yards and time of possession, but the Illini defense forced four field goals to give themselves a chance.
George Jr.’s numbers weren’t pretty — 13-of-29 for 140 yards — but he recorded a pair of passing touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over.
Here are a few takeaways from Saturday’s contest at Memorial Stadium.
Even without any passing game, Kendrick Foster is explosive as a runner
It’s amazing to me that Illinois is able to run the ball with Jeff George Jr. under center because he poses little to no threat throwing the ball, but Foster was able to find some cracks in the defense Saturday, including a 64-yard touchdown run. Foster has been a home run hitter on this offense, in addition to Reggie Corbin, and he gave an anemic Illinois offense some much-needed life this afternoon. Foster carried the ball 17 times for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns today, and he’s averaging more than six yards per carry this season.
This coaching staff called a really, really good game
This was the first game where I felt the “Lovie Effect” actually on the field. The defense was able to stifle the run and get pressure on Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor by bringing blitzes from safeties, linebackers or the nickel cornerback. This defense might not have enough talent/experience right now to be a lockdown unit, but they’re in good hands. On the other side of the ball, Garrick McGee is operating with both hands tied behind his back due to all of the injuries on offense. He’s on his third string quarterback, and his receiving corps has been decimated. That being said, after a brutal first half, the Illinois offense showed signs of life and was able to move the ball with a commitment to the running game and well-timed play action passes. I’d love to see what McGee can do with a fully stocked cupboard of playmakers.
This young defense can’t cover anyone, but their run defense has been stout. And they played their heart out
The only reason this wasn’t another laugher of a game was due to the brilliance of this Illinois defense. The box score won’t do justice to how well this unit played, but it was forced to carry a heavy load for the entire contest. I’m mainly thinking of freshmen safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson with this post, but the entire defense was able to limit Michigan State’s effectiveness on the ground throughout the duration of the game. Unfortunately, they really struggled to defend against the pass as Michigan State racked up 315 yards through the air. Michigan State dominated time of possession with more than 40 minutes of possession, but this Illini defense was able to weather the storm and induce field goals instead of touchdowns time and time again. They were tested once again in the final minute and held strong to secure the victory.