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Throwback Thursday: Miracle in East Lansing

A look back at the greatest comeback in Illinois football history.

Nate Hobbs (8) Stanley Green (7) and Caleb Griffin (11) celebrate the aftermath of their heroic win with Illinois fans at Spartan Stadium.
Brad Repplinger

The day is Nov. 9, 2019.

Only three weeks after James McCourt’s game-winning FG over undefeated No. 6 Wisconsin, the Illini were winners of 3 in a row, notching victories over Purdue and Rutgers (respectively) in the ensuing two weeks.

The location is East Lansing, Michigan.

The Illinois Fighting Illini (5-4) were looking to do something that an Illinois football team had not done since 2014: make a bowl game. The Michigan State Spartans (4-4) were standing in their way.

Illinois football has seen a fair share of success throughout the program’s 132 years, but what transpired on this night will go down forever as one of the most memorable and dramatic games in Illinois sports history.

Early Struggles

Coming into the night on a 3-game skid, the Spartans had seen their previous No. 18 ranking in the AP Poll disappear quickly. Losing to Big Ten powerhouses of Ohio State (No. 4), Wisconsin (No. 8) and Penn State (No. 6) by a combined 83 points, they were looking to bounce back against an Illinois squad that was trending in the opposite way.

After the first 30 minutes of play, the Spartans were doing just that.

Through the two-man running game of QB Brian Lewerke and RB Elijah Collins, the Spartans took a 28-3 lead with 11:24 left in the 2nd quarter.

Read that again. The Illini were down 25 POINTS after under 20 minutes of gameplay. This game had blowout written all over it.

However, the defense clamped down the remainder of the first half, forcing two Lewerke interceptions - one being in the endzone - to keep the Spartan offense at bay.

A Brandon Peters 46-yard TD to Josh Imatorbhebhe as the first half expired cut the lead to 28-10, giving the Illini a slight momentum boost after what was a nightmarish first 30 minutes.

Fighting Back

Down big at half, the Illini knew something special was needed for a 2nd half comeback. These players were in this scenario just 3 weeks before, where they successfully pulled off a 13-point comeback against then top-10 Wisconsin, and Illini fans were hoping to see this team pull off another remarkable victory.

After a fairly uneventful 3rd quarter, the team was staring at a 31-10 deficit with just 15 minutes remaining.

The Illini’s biggest comeback in program history came in 1999, where they came from 20 points down against a heavily favored Michigan team. Could they really overcome a deficit greater than that in just one quarter?

Brandon Peters looked at that 1999 team and said ‘Hold my beer’. Just like the last play of the first half, Peters looked Imatorbhebhe’s way on the first play of the 4th quarter and, well, you can guess what happened.

An 83-yard strike to Imatorbhebhe cut the lead to 31-17. That’s right, we have a game now folks. Not even four minutes later, RB Reggie Corbin cut that 14-point lead in half with a 6-yard TD run.

On the edge of your seat? Just wait.

Crunch Time

After each team traded turnovers, the Spartans faced a 3rd-and-10 in Illinois territory with just over 5 minutes remaining. Once again, the defense came to play, doing what Lovie Smith’s defenses always do: force turnovers.

This Sydney Brown pick six cut the lead to just 1, and after a nearly game-ending drive by the Spartans resulted in a field goal to push the lead to 34-30, the Illini needed a touchdown.

1:57 left. 4th and 16. Game on the line.

With their backs against the wall, who does Peters look to?

Imatorbhebhe. AGAIN.

This jaw-dropping connection sets up the play that will be remembered for years to come.

Five-yard line. Eleven seconds left. No timeouts. Here’s the call.

A moment like no other. A game like no other.

Final: 37-34
Brad Repplinger

Greatest. Comeback. Ever.

Interested in other Illinois comebacks that rival this one? Check out the article below: