The Illini picked up their first home conference win of the season after a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Michigan State. Third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr. put together some impressive drives to lead the orange and blue to victory, but the defense also came to play with some huge sacks and third down stops. It’s hard to narrow it down to three, but below are our players of the game ranked hockey-style.
Third Star: Tre Watson
Redshirt sophomore Tre Watson is one of several Illini defenders who has emerged this season for Lovie Smith. On Saturday against the Spartans he racked up a career-high 16 tackles, two of which were tackles for loss. The defense, which was on the field for nearly 45 minutes, was overall magnificent, but Watson was clearly the MVP of the secondary on Saturday. He has certainly seemed to settle in to his position at linebacker, and his fellow members of the secondary have also stepped up:
#Illini have 3 players within the top 5 of the Big Ten in tackles per conference game:— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 6, 2016
3. Watson, 10.2
t5. Nelson, 9.5
t5. Nickerson, 9.5
Watson was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against the Spartans. He’ll have a bright future on the Illinois D if his level of production continues to develop at this high a level.
Second Star: Kendrick Foster
What more is there to say about Foster? He continues to impress out of the Illinois backfield week after week. This past Saturday he was able to come up with some clutch runs on third and even fourth down to save the Illinois offense from what looked like it was going to be an uneventful game. Foster came through with an impressive 19-yard touchdown scamper at the end of the first half to put the Illini on the board, and also ripped off an enormous 64-yard TD run that set the tone for the remainder of the game.
Kendrick Foster B1G ranks:— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 6, 2016
2nd yards per carry (6.34)
5th all-purpose y/g (124.0)
6th rush TDs (7)
7th total TDs (9)
14th rush yards (596)
Foster finished the game with 146 all-purpose yards and was clearly one of the best players on the offensive side of the ball. Remember, this is a guy who was intent on transferring from Illinois prior to the Lovie Smith hire. Illini fans certainly feel fortunate he stayed in Champaign.
First Star: Jeff George Jr.
Even though some could argue that Foster and the Illinois D both had better days than George Jr., a lot of credit has to be given to the third-string QB. He struggled in the first few starts of his collegiate career, and it was unclear who the Illinois starter would be heading into Saturday’s game. But despite a shaky first quarter, George Jr. put together an impressive game that amounted to his first career win under center.
George Jr. put together a clutch drive with less than four minutes remaining in the game, eventually hitting Sam Mays for a game-winning touchdown with only one minute left on the clock.
The throws he made on that final drive were impressive but his demeanor was even more so. A freshman third-string QB could’ve easily folded under that type of pressure, but instead George Jr. embraced it and led the Illini to a big-time victory. He finished with two touchdowns and no interceptions for 140 yards and a passer rating of 108.1.
The Illini will look to string together back-to-back wins for the first time this season when they travel north to take on the Wisconsin Badgers next weekend. Even though this season isn’t what any Illinois fan was hoping for, the kind of fight we saw against Michigan State isn’t something we’re used to seeing in recent years. The future may still be bright for Lovie’s squad.