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Illinois players plotted their move a week ago.

It may not have been the most memorable play on a heart-stopping Saturday that made the Illini bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 with a 37-34 victory at Michigan State. But when the players executed their postgame celebration plan by hoisting Lovie Smith on their shoulders at midfield at Spartan Stadium, it seemed to lift years of negativity off their shoulders.

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Smith kept believing in the Illini — and they in him — even when they started the season 2-4. Even when they finished winless in the Big Ten in his second season. Even among all the preseason hot-seat talk that surrounded their coach.

Even during this game, when Illinois alternated between appearing to stage an epic comeback and throwing away the game.

“This is the reason why I stayed,” fifth-year senior running back Dre Brown said. “Through the injuries and the coaching changes, this is why you stay. Everybody fought. You’re just one play away.”

It took multiple seemingly miracle plays for the Illini to beat Michigan State.

The Illini (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) trailed 28-3 in the second quarter, making the victory their largest comeback in team history. They scored four of their five touchdowns in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Spartans 27-3 in the final 15 minutes.

They exemplified their never-say-die attitude several times, but on their final drive they struggled to punch it in on first-and-goal on the Spartans 1-yard line. A fourth-down interference call on the Spartans gave Illinois another chance, and with 5 seconds left quarterback Brandon Peters connected with tight end Daniel Barker for a 5-yard, victory-sealing touchdown.

That winning play wouldn’t have been possible without a stunning fourth-and-17 catch on the drive by Josh Imatorbhebhe.

“It’s one for the memory books,” said Smith, who was drenched from a postgame Gatorade shower. “It’s how you finish.”

Every time Illinois appeared to be painting a masterpiece, it followed with a disastrous mistake.

After Illinois recovered a fourth-quarter Michigan State fumble, Peters threw an interception.

On the Spartans’ next drive, Sydney Brown returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown to seemingly tie the score. But James McCourt missed the extra-point attempt, and the Illini trailed 31-30 with 4 minutes, 53 seconds left.

Michigan State (4-5, 2-4) answered with a 46-yard field goal for a four-point lead that put pressure on Illinois to drive 75 yards and score a touchdown to win.

The Illini caused four Michigan State turnovers, giving them an FBS-best 22 takeaways this season. The unit made big plays despite the absence injured linebacker Jake Hansen and fellow linebacker Milo Eifler, who was ejected in the first quarter for throwing a punch.

“It’s always about taking the ball away,” Smith said. “But we were behind and needed to score points.”

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Peters enjoyed his most successful outing, completing 22 of 42 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target, Imatorbhebhe, grabbed four catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns.

“That’s how you judge quarterbacks,” Smith said. “How do quarterbacks play when the game is on the line? When you’re down? When you have to make plays? He’s been outstanding.”

Smith was at the center of the on-field celebration as a group of fans and the Illinois marching band jumped around the team. Barker rolled on the turf in excitement. Smith received a sweet hug from his young grandson followed by a bear hug from athletic director Josh Whitman.

The victory was Smith’s most significant since the NFC Championship as coach of the Bears 13 years ago. It was Illinois’ most meaningful in years too.

Linebacker Dele Harding walked into the postgame press conference holding an orange-and-white bowling ball. Players could be heard through the hallways screaming and singing in the visitors’ locker room.

Smith started his press conference with a smile and announced: “We’re going bowling.”

“A lot of people were jumping off the bandwagon and doubting what we could do,” he said. “We saw signs of what we could do.”

Now, they have proof.

“For some programs, getting to a bowl game may not be a big deal,” Smith said. “For our program, we needed to cross this hurdle to make an even bigger step."

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