EAST LANSING, Mich. – Brandon Peters threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Barker with five seconds left, completing an incredible Illinois comeback and giving the Illini a 37-34 victory over Michigan State on Saturday night.
Illinois (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) trailed 28-3 in the second quarter and 31-10 entering the fourth. Down 34-30, they converted fourth-and-17, then drew a pass interference flag in the end zone on another fourth-down pass. It was second-and-goal when Peters patiently rolled out to his right and found Barker open in the back of the end zone.
Peters threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
The Illini are now bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. They've done it by forcing turnovers all season long, including four Saturday.
"So much has gone into us being in this position," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "We always talk about starting fast but it's about the finish."
Down 28-3, Illinois began its comeback when Peters threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe on the final play of the first half. It wasn't so much a Hail Mary as it was just a long pass to a single-covered receiver deep down the field - the first of several puzzling mistakes by Michigan State.
Down 31-10, Imatorbhebhe scored on an 83-yard catch and run with 14:48 left in the fourth. Then Reggie Corbin scored on a 6-yard run to make it 31-24.
The Spartans (4-5, 2-4) then lost a fumble giving the Illini the ball at the Michigan State 8-yard line. But Peters' pass to the end zone was intercepted by Shakur Brown.
The reprieve was only temporary for the collapsing Spartans. Brian Lewerke's third interception of the game was returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Sydney Brown. That would have tied the game, but James McCourt missed the extra point.
"There's definitely a shift in momentum, and we tried to get it back on our side," Lewerke said.
Michigan State's Matt Coghlin kicked a 46-yard field goal with 3:17 remaining to make it 34-30. Peters completed a 37-yard pass to Imatorbhebhe on fourth-and-17, and before long, it was first-and-goal from the 1.
The Spartans forced Illinois into a fourth-down situation from the 4, and Peters' pass to Caleb Reams fell incomplete. But Reams and Josh Butler got tangled, and the Michigan State defensive back was called for pass interference. The Illini finally scored with 5 seconds left.
Illinois: What a way for the Illini to qualify for a bowl. They've now forced 26 turnovers on the season, and that helped them get back in this one. Then Peters, Imatorbhebhe and Barker took it from there.
Michigan State: It was simply an appalling loss for the Spartans, who have now dropped four straight as their season has gone from bad to worse. They turned the ball over and allowed long passes in situations when only a long pass could really hurt them.
Illinois: The Illini are off next weekend before playing at Iowa on Nov. 23.
Michigan State: The Spartans play at rival Michigan on Saturday.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister