CHAMPAIGN, ILL. - Tyler O’Connor was knocked out of the game. LJ Scott fumbled and was benched. Miguel Machado and Thiyo Lukusa played musical chairs at right tackle.
Malik McDowell left the game with a foot injury. Montae Nicholson didn’t play. Vayante Copeland stayed home.
Michigan State was reeling. In a bad way. It’s defense drained, it’s offense flailing.
Damion Terry entered at quarterback and nearly end the Spartans’ misery.
Then Tyson Smith committed two pass interference penalties and Chris Frey blew coverage as Illinois’ Jeff George Jr. threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Sam Mays with 1:35 to play that extended the Spartans’ losing streak to seven with a 31-27 loss Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
MSU (2-7, 0-6 Big Ten) has lost seven straight games for the first time in the decade-long tenure of Mark Dantonio, his longest personal losing streak in a 13 years as a head coach. It’s the Spartans’ first seven-game skid since losing eight in a row from the last game of the 1981 season to the first seven to open 1982 under Muddy Waters. MSU also is 0-6 in the Big Ten for the first time since joining the Big Ten in 1953.
Terry – two weeks ago the third-string quarterback – took over after O’Connor was injured in the fourth quarter and directed a field goal drive first. Then facing fourth down deep near the Illinois goal line, Terry rolled out right, saw his first option covered, stopped, then heaved a pass high to the back of the end zone. R.J. Shelton caught it and tapped his feet in-bounds for the 13-yard touchdown to give MSU a 27-24 lead with 2:52 to play.
But George and the Illini responded quickly with its normal fast-tempo offense. The Illini needed just four plays to go 75 yards, thanks in part to two pass interference penalties on MSU cornerback Smith. George threw the game-clinching TD to Mays with 1:53 to play as MSU linebacker Ed Davis’ blitz arrived late.
Terry moved the Spartans deep into Illinois territory on their final drive. On fourth-and-2 at the 15, after three straight Illini timeouts, Terry abandoned the pocket and was sacked with 12 seconds left to seal another MSU loss.
MSU’s defense channeled the energy and physicality it had against Michigan into much of the opening half. The Spartans held Illinois without a first down and to just 26 total yards on its first five drives, all of them resulting in three-and-out punts.
Their offense, however, continue to falter with O’Connor under center. The Spartans had two drives reach the red zone, only to either stall or move backward with penalties, a sack or negative rushing plays.
Michael Geiger booted a pair of field goals, from 46 yards out in the first quarter and from 34 yards with 2:35 left in the second, to give MSU a 6-0 lead.
That’s when the Illini’s hurry-up offense started gashing the Spartans, getting back-to-back first downs to begin the drive and converting a fourth-and-1 to keep moving.
Facing third-and-10 at MSU’s 19, Illinois gave a perfectly-timed handoff against an aggressive Spartan blitz. Kendrick Foster went off the right side, cut back toward the middle and then broke two MSU tackles and carried two other Spartans into the end zone with 14 seconds left before the break.
All of a sudden, the Illini went from being offensively inept to taking a 7-6 lead into halftime. The Spartans had a 169-99 edge in total yards, with 73 of the Illini’s yards coming on the final drive.
Illinois carried that momentum into the second half. After another MSU drive stalled and resulted in Geiger’s third field goal, the Illini needed just four plays to regain the lead. Foster zipped through a hole in the middle past Riley Bullough, who was blocked out of position. Matt Morrissey missed a diving tackle attempt, and Foster took off 64 yards for the go-ahead score.
It got worse for MSU on its next offensive play. LJ Scott got hit by Illinois’ Stanley Green on a first-down carry, the ball popped free, and Jaylen Dunlap recovered deep in Spartan territory. The Illini settled for a 42-yard McLaughlin field goal to boost their lead to 17-9.
The Spartans countered late in the third. O’Connor marched them 84 yards in 10 plays, completing a rollout pass to Josiah Price for 26 yards on third-and-11 to keep the drive alive. Felton Davis III had a catch for 12 yards and a reverse carry for 13 more, and Gerald Holmes followed a solid block by left guard Tyler Higby for a 6-yard TD run. O’Connor’s pass to Shelton for the 2-point conversion tied the game with 58 seconds left in the third.
But the Illini reclaimed the lead on its ensuing drive. George completed passes 23 yards and then for 19 yards on third-and-4. Then on third-and-goal, George froze MSU linebacker Davis with a play-action fake and lobbed a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ainslie Johnson that made it 24-17 Illinois.
MSU hosts Rutgers next Saturday (noon/Big Ten Network).
Detroit Free Press