Sunday, September 2, 2018

Illinois Football gets a comeback victory in Week 1

The statue of former Illini great Red Grange outside of the main entrance to Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Illinois won their Week 1 game against Kent State, 31-24. PHOTO / ALEX STAAB
Champaign, Ill. - The tailgaters had filed in, most as early as 7:00 am. The team had completed their traditional walk to the field. All that was left was kickoff. It's a Saturday morning in September and time for the 2018 Illinois Football season, as the Illini (1-0) took on the Golden Flashes from Kent State (0-1). 

It took all of two plays for something to happen. Kent State's Myles Washington went down, and although he came up from the injury under his own power, he continued to limp until he had reached the sideline. A big hit from the Illini's Delano Ware. That hit forced Kent State to punt on their first offensive possession of the game. 

As announced on Monday, AJ Bush, the Virginia Tech transfer, wasted no time trying to make big plays. A deep downfield pass to Ricky Smalling was just out of Smalling's reach, and a potentially touchdown-scoring play became a simple incomplete pass. Bush quickly redeemed himself with a 14-yard run for a first down. 

Then, at the 11:38 mark of the opening quarter, Memorial Stadium saw its first points of the 2018 season, coming on a 50-yard field goal from Chase McLaughlin, a drive that went seven plays, 18 yards, and took 2:32 off the clock. 

This is where things began to turn south, at least for the interim, for the Illini. Multiple missed tackles led to multiple big plays for the Golden Flashes. These said missed tackles even got Kent State down as far as the red zone on a possession in particular. That very drive, a wide open pass to Antwan Dixon was completed, and Matthew Trickett kicked the extra point. Just like that, Kent State held a 7-3 lead.

With 5:43 to spare in the first, the Illini couldn't re-take the lead, and the 7-3 score held after 15 minutes of play. 

The Illini did not start the second quarter in an optimal way. AJ Bush was hit quite hard by the Kent State defensive line, and the Golden Flashes were able to recover a fumble. That fumble would turn into a field goal to put Kent State up 10-3 with just under eight minutes to go until the break. 

What happened next is something that if you're an Illini fan, may have left you speechless. The kickoff was caught by the Illini. That seems normal until what followed was that Illinois player running straight out of bounds at the Illini three yard line. Illinois was able to recover, getting a first down pass to Sam Mays. Yet more mistakes followed. AJ Bush did something often compared to Mark Sanchez, running into his own teammate. The only difference with this instance, Bush had already gotten the first down. Even after going from snapping the ball near their own end zone to nearly midfield, the Illini still had to punt. 

A mere couple minutes later, Kent State increased their lead just a tad further, 17-3, off a 27-yard pass, plus the PAT. Just 3:06 remained until the half. 

Illinois was able to back up Kent State inside their own red zone, but although they had to punt, it amounted to nothing. The punt looked like it was going to be caught by Mike Dudek, but he decided to let it go. That wound up not being well-received by the fans, to say the least, who responded with loud boos. Also as time ran out, more boos rang out from the stands, as the Illini were nearly booed off the field at halftime, down 17-3. 

There's two halves in this game. After another drive that would end in a punt, Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett had a pass intercepted by Jartavius Martin of Illinois, and the Illini had a chance to make their way back into this one. 

The first play of the new Illinois drive was a big one, with AJ Bush completing a pass to Ricky Smalling for 24 yards, putting Illinois just outside of the red zone. A quality gain on the run by Mike Dudek set up another Dudek play, this time with the senior receiving a pass from AJ Bush for 13 yards. That play put the Illini inside the 10. 

On the very next play, it was RaVon Bonner running it in from eight yards out for the first Illini touchdown in 2018. Chase McLaughlin followed with the PAT, and that brought Illinois within a touchdown. 

Kent State's Justin Rankin was pretty busy on the next drive, getting three yards on four carries. That last carry was Kent State going for it on fourth down, something that first-year head coach Sean Lewis wasn't afraid to do on numerous occasions. However, it didn't work out this time. 

Another drive where the running game was a frequent choice, this time for the Illini. Reggie Corbin racked up 59 rushing yards on three carries. The last carry went for 39 yards and a touchdown, plus McLaughlin's PAT and just like that, from down 14, Illinois had just tied the game at 17. 

Kent State wasn't going to let that lead last very long. Woody Barrett landed numerous good passes, targeting Raekwon James more so than any other receiver, capping it all off with a rush of his own, running it in four yards for a Golden Flashes touchdown. The extra point attempt put Kent State back in front, 24-17. 

The Illini needed 14 points in the next 15 minutes if they wanted to start the season 1-0, something that would be desirable, considering Lovie Smith had been 2-0 in season openers at Illinois. 

Kent State would eventually have to punt on their first drive after the turn of the quarter, and Mike Dudek returned that punt for 26 yards. That put the Illini on their own 45, something that would help out. The drive became a touchdown, with Illinois scoring off a one-yard rush from Reggie Corbin. An extra point from Chase McLaughlin set the final score. Illinois would walk away with a Week 1 win over Kent State, 31-24.

The Illini will host Western Illinois on Saturday, September 8th, at 6:30 pm. 

They Said It - Illini Postgame Quotes
Lovie Smith:
On AJ Bush | "He's a tough guy, he's mobile. We said that. Thought he ran well, thought he threw some good passes."
On the locker room mentality | "There was a confident locker room. And I think it comes from being prepared and knowing it's about the finish and knowing that we didn't play our best ball. But we knew that we had left a lot of plays on the field."

AJ Bush:
On Halftime | "I was cool. I know that if I'm down, my team is gonna be down, so it cannot be that way. I was telling Coach Smith that we were gonna win this game at halftime. I wanted everyone to be calm and cool, and that's how we played in the second half."
On what other teams should expect | "Any team that judges us off this game will be in for a rude awakening"

Mike Dudek:
Halftime Energy | "At first, it was a little down, but I think Del'Shawn (Phillips) or (Jake) Hansen stood up and gave a little speech, little pep talk to the team, and everyone got fired up. There was never a doubt in our mind that we weren't going to come back and win this game."
What was said at halftime? | "Telling us to believe, telling us we were better than what we were showing on the field. We were down and losing by 14 points. The crowd was booing, that is not a great feeling. We had to start playing better and faster."

Reggie Corbin:
On believing | "The entire time we believed it. We believed in ourselves, we never got down, and you could tell the maturity of the team, we were so calm about it the entire time."

The full postgame stats from Saturday's Illinois - Kent State game.
 Full Big Ten Scoreboard (Week 1)
Minnesota def. New Mexico State, 48-10
Northwestern def. Purdue, 31-27
Michigan State def. Utah State, 38-31
Wisconsin def. Western Kentucky, 34-3
Illinois def. Kent State, 31-24
Maryland def. Texas, 34-29
Ohio State def. Oregon State, 77-31
Rutgers def. Texas State, 35-7
Iowa def. Northern Illinois, 33-7
Penn State def. Appalachian State, 45-38
Indiana def. Florida International, 38-28
Notre Dame def. Michigan, 24-17

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