Fighting Illini comes to the Bay Area to face the Cal Golden Bears

news-gazette.com photo: Josh Imatorbhebhe of the Illinois Illini makes a 83 yard catch against the Michigan State Spartans, Imatorbhebhe and the Illini battle the Cal Bears at Levi Stadium on Mon Dec 30th for the Red Box Bowl

By Jeremy Kahn

SAN FRANCISCO-With the Redbox Bowl in basically their own backyard, the California Golden Bears will have the home field advantage, but do not tell that to their opponents, the Fighting Illini of Illinois.

During the 2019 season, the Fighting Illini went 3-2 on the road, including a 37-34 victory over the Michigan State Spartans that came after the Fighting Illini entered the fourth quarter trailing 31-10 when the final stanza began.

Josh Imatorbhebhe was on the receiving end of an 83-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Peters to cut the Spartans lead down to 31-17.

Reggie Corbin then cut the lead down in half, as he scored on a six-yard run just three minutes after the Peters to Imatorbhebhe touchdown pass.

The Fighting Illini defense got in on the act, as they tied up the game, when Sydney Brown returned an interception 76 yards to get them within one.

After Michigan State kicked a field goal to increase their lead up to four points, Peters and the Fighting Illini got the ball back for one final drive.

The Fighting Illini then converted a fourth-and-17, then got another first down when the Spartans were called for pass interference in the end zone on another fourth down possession.

Peters then gave them the lead for the first time on the afternoon, as he found Daniel Barker for a five-yard touchdown pass with five seconds remaining in the game to give the Fighting Illini their sixth win of the season and bowl eligible for the first time since the 2014 season.

This was the biggest comeback in school history, and the 27 points scored by them in the fourth quarter were the most by an opponent in the 96-year, 544-game history of Spartan Stadium.

In all, the Fighting Illini went 3-2 away from Memorial Stadium.

Lovie Smith, who is in his fourth year in Champaign as head coach leads the team to their first bowl game since the 2014 Zaxbys Heart of Dallas Bowl, where they lost to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 35-18.

As for coming to bowl games in Northern California, this is not the Fighting Illinis first trip to the Bay Area.

The Fighting Illini came to the area in 2011, where behind Nathan Scheelhaase went 18-for-30 for 139 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception. Scheelhaase was also the leading rusher, as he gained 110 yards on 22 carries and the Fighting Illini defeated the UCLA Bruins 20-14 at AT&T Park.

Overall, this is the eighth trip to California in a bowl game for the Fighting Illini, as they are 3-2 in the Rose Bowl, 0-1 in the Holiday Bowl and 1-0 in what was then known as the Kraft Hunger Bowl, now known as the Redbox Bowl.

A graduate transfer from Big 10 rival Michigan, Peters started 10 games for the Fighting Illini and led them in passing, as he went 130-for-238 with 1,611 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Corbin was the leading ground gainer, as he carried the ball 129 times for 691 yards and six touchdowns.

Imatorbhebhe led the team in receptions with 33, yards with 634 and nine touchdowns.