Illinois Football: Top 5 Illini wins in the Lovie Smith era

IOWA CITY, IOWA- NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini before the match-up against the Iowa Hawkeyes, on November 23, 2019 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
IOWA CITY, IOWA- NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini before the match-up against the Iowa Hawkeyes, on November 23, 2019 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images) /
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EAST LANSING, MI – NOVEMBER 09: Members of Illinois football team pick coach Lovie Smith up on their shoulders following a college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and Illinois Fighting Illini on November 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

1. Illinois at Michigan State – 2019

This game is Lovie’s most important since he’s been at Illinois. Going into the game, Illinois was 5-4 and 4-3 in Big Ten play. The Illini were missing a key piece in this game with Jake Hansen out with an injury.

The game started pretty ugly for the Illini. After a punt on the first drive, the Illinois defense surrenders a touchdown to Michigan State. Illinois then drives down the field to set up a James McCourt field goal to get the score back to 7-3.

Illinois’ defense gave up another touchdown following the McCourt field goal. This score increased the Illini deficit to 14-3. The scoring barrage continued for Michigan State with another touchdown to start the second quarter and, less than two minutes later, they tack on another touchdown to increase the lead to 28-3 with more than 11 minutes to go until halftime.

Momentum started changing, though. With a big interception by Illinois safety Stanley Green in the end zone, the Illini started gaining confidence. While Illinois wasn’t able to capitalize on the turnover, the defense was able to pick off Brian Lewerke on the next drive as well. This time it was Sydney Brown with the interception. This turnover led to Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters completing a 46-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe, which brought the score to 28-10 at halftime.

On the first possession of the third quarter, Michigan State drives down the field and makes a field goal. The score is now 31-10. With their backs against the ropes, Illinois needed to find an answer. After multiple punts by both teams, Illinois finally scores. Peters completes an 83-yard pass to Imatorbhebhe for a touchdown to bring the score to 31-17. The Spartans punt again, and five plays later, Illinois scores as Reggie Corbin runs for a 6-yard touchdown.

31-24 is the score now as the Fighting Illini have stormed back into this game.  Michigan State fumbles on their next drive and it was recovered by Khalan Tolson. But Peters throws an interception in the endzone for what seemed like a game-sealing turnover. But Illinois wasn’t finished.

Eight plays after the Peters interception, Lewerke Throws an interception. Sydney returns the interception for a touchdown. Which makes the score 31-30, but McCourt then misses the extra point. The Spartans drive down the field and kick a field goal to make the score 34-30 with 3:17 to go in the game.

Illinois offense needed to score a touchdown to win. The Illini starts the possession off great, but somehow they end up in a 4th and 17 situation. Needing a miracle, Peters completes a 37-yard throw to Imatorbhebhe for a first down. Now in field goal range, Illinois looks to score. Peters dumps it off to Dre Brown for a tough 12-yard gain. The Illini are now at the Spartans 4-yard line. On a 4th and goal, Peters’ pass to Caleb Reams is incomplete, but there is a pass interference penalty on Michigan State. Two plays after the penalty, Peters throws to Daniel Barker for a touchdown. The Fighting Illini finish off the comeback and win 37-34.

Next. Projected Illini depth chart on offense for 2020. dark

This sent Illinois to a bowl game for the first time since 2014. This was also Lovie’s first-ever bowl appearance as Illinois’ head coach. This Illinois Football program is heading in the right direction thanks to Lovie and this coaching staff.