CHAMPAIGN, Ill. _ Jeff George Jr. threw for 140 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, the second a 16-yard strike to Sam Mays that gave Illinois a 31-27 win over Michigan State.
The win broke a two-game losing streak for the Illini (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten). It also extended the Spartans’ misery. Michigan State (2-7, 0-6) has lost seven in a row.
George started the season as the third-string quarterback for the Illini. With injuries to No. 1 quarterback Wes Lunt and backup Chayce Crouch, though, the son of longtime NFL quarterback Jeff George has now started three straight games at his father’s alma mater.
“We had forgotten what it’s like,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after the win. “There’s no excitement like a winning locker room, just genuine emotion, that’s what the locker room was like.”
On Dad’s Day at Illinois, the younger George was just 13-of-29 passing.
But the second touchdown gave the Illini the lead they would keep.
Kendrick Foster added 146 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns.
The loss was a stunner for a Spartan team that dominated the game on paper, outgaining Illinois 490-304 overall and 315 to 140 in passing yardage. And eight times Michigan State moved the ball to the Illinois 36-yard line or further, bit turned those possessions into just two touchdowns and four field goals. Michigan State’s 10 penalties for 89 yards hurt.
“Very disappointing,” Spartan coach Mark Dantonio said several times in his postgame news conference, shaking his head. “You kick four field goals, that sounds good. (But) it means there’s missed opportunities in the red zone.”
Michigan State had a shot late, driving the ball to the Illinois 15. But on fourth down with 19 seconds left in the game, Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive end Carroll Phillips stufed quarterback Damion Terry’s draw for a 1-yard loss.
Terry came into the game in the fourth quarterback when Tyler O’Connor left with an injury and finished 6-of-12 for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan State: O’Connor and Terry proved Saturday that the Spartans aren’t lost at quarterback. With Brian Lewerke out for the season, O’Connor was steady. He kept plays alive with his feet on a key third-quarter drive that ended with a touchdown and tied the game at 17-17. And when Terry came off the bench, he was cool under pressure for the late fourth-quarter touchdown.
Illinois: Illinois came into the season talking up its defense, then spent eight weeks struggling to stop the run and, at times, avoid penalties and other mistakes that cost the Illini games. On Saturday, the Illini defense looked as good as initially promised. Playing with short fields and against an offense that has shown it can move the ball, defense kept the Illini in the game Saturday until the offense woke up.
Michigan State: The Spartans host Rutgers Saturday.
Illinois: The Illini head to Madison to face No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday.
By DAVID MERCER