LIVE! Illini hold off Kent State

LIVE! Illini hold off Kent State

Illinois 31, Kent State 24. FINAL

Illinois has won its season opener, fending off a Mid-American Conference team for the second straight season under Lovie Smith despite a sluggish first half.

Illinois trailed Kent State 17-3 at halftime, but used a strong second-half performance to stave off an upset bid by the Golden Flashes, giving Illinois its eight straight season-opening win, this one in front of 31,898 fans at Memorial Stadium. That attendance marked the worst crowd for a season opener at home for Illinois since 1949, when Illinois tied Iowa State 20-20 before 31,106 fans at Memorial Stadium.

AJ Bush Jr. finished 13 of 23 for 190 passing yards and 139 rushing yards on 21 carries in his first game starting at Illinois. Reggie Corbin added 79 rushing yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns.

After Illinois went ahead 31-24 with less than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Illini's first lead since early in the first quarter, on a 1-yard touchdown run by Corbin, Kent State drove down to the Illini 6-yard line.

But the Illinois defense held its ground, with Del'Shawn Phillips coming up with an interception in the end zone on a throw by Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett on fourth-and-goal.

From there, Bush used his legs to keep Kent State at bay and make sure Illinois (1-0) avoided a massive upset heading into next Saturday's 6:30 p.m. home game against Western Illinois.

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Illinois 31, Kent State 24 — 10:39 left in 4th quarter

Rod Smith's offense at Arizona should make this no secret ... Illinois' offense is going to be run heavy. Another touchdown run by Reggie Corbin — this one just a 1-yarder — gave the Illini their first lead since 3-0. Illinois has to make a stop here to make that lead stick, but Kent State's ability to move the ball on offense means this game is more likely to have another lead change or two before the final 10 1/2 minutes run off the clock.

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Illinois 24, Kent State 24 — 2:06 left in 3rd quarter

That didn't take long — 1 minute, 14 seconds to be exact. A wide open Ricky Smalling, who went on to juke a couple defenders and an official (who fell running backward), put Illinois in scoring position with a 44-yard reception. Mike Epstein tied it up for the Illini with a 5-yard touchdown run. Now, Illinois has to actually stop Kent State, which has been much easier said than done so far today.

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Kent State 24, Illinois 17 — 3:20 left in 3rd quarter

So much for momentum belonging to the Illini. Kent State hasn't been intimidated today, and the Golden Flashes' latest drive is perfect example. Lead evaporated, Kent State simply marched 75 yards on eight plays before scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a four-yard rush by quarterback Woody Barrett. The Golden Flashes have now put up 350 yards of total offense on the Illini.

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Illinois 17, Kent State 17 — 6:11 left in 3rd quarter

Reggie Corbin was an afterthought in the 2017 Illinois offense under Garrick McGee. Now McGee's at Missouri as an offensive analyst, and Corbin has a significantly bigger role in Rod Smith's offense. That whole thing about getting athletes in space? Corbin's one of them, and he showed why after tightroping his way down the left sideline for a 39-yard touchdown after getting a pitch from AJ Bush Jr. The redshirt junior running back showed off some pretty nifty footwork to stay inbounds.

The Illini have momentum now. Can they keep it?

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Kent State 17, Illinois 10 — 9:36 left in 3rd quarter

Jartavius Martin's first career interception (off a tipped pass) stopped what was looking like another productive Kent State drive. Then Illinois actually put together a productive drive of its own. How, you might ask? By doing what offensive coordinator Rod Smith has repeatedly said his offense is all about — getting the ball to athletes in space. That meant a short pass Ricky Smalling was able to turn into a big gain, an end around by Mikey Dudek and then another pass to Dudek in the flat he also turned upfield for a bigger gain.

The end result? An eight-yard touchdown run by Ra'Von Bonner. Simple as that.

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Kent State 17, Illinois 3 — Halftime

There's certainly a reason to question what exactly Illinois was doing on its final drive of the first half. The Illini got the ball near midfield with 53 seconds on the clock. Instead of making a real attempt to move the ball downfield, the Illini ran a couple plays with AJ Bush Jr. keeping it. A 49-yard field goal attempt by Chase McLaughlin was wide right, and the Illini got nothing.

There's really not much more to say about what transpired than what the Illini fan base is expressing on Twitter. And in the crowd consdering boos rained down as the players ran off the field.

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Kent State 17, Illinois 3 — 3:06 left in 2nd quarter

The worst thing Illinois could do today? Exactly what's happening. Kent State has out gained the Illini 223-136 so far, and while the Golden Flashes might have more passing yards than rushing they've set up their scoring opportunities on Illinois' inability to stop the run. Then they just score on 20-plus yard passing plays.

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Kent State 10, Illinois 3 — 7:44 left in 2nd quarter

Since Kent State decided not to let punter Grant Urenovitch get on the field anymore (two 24-yard punts), the Golden Flashes are 3 for 3 going for it on fourth down. That included another big gain on a QB keeper by Woody Barrett that got Kent State in the red zone. A 27-yard field goal by Matthew Trickett was the result.

The Golden Flashes have realized that running the ball is the best option. The Illini couldn't stop the run last year, and they aren't doing much of it so far today giving up 6.1 yards per rush.

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Kent State 7, Illinois 3 — 5:43 left in 1st quarter

Kent State going for it on 4th and 9 just inside the 50-yard line made sense — particularly when you consider the Golden Flashes' punter's last attempt went a piddling 24 yards. Woody Barrett picked up the first down for Kent State on a QB keeper, and one play later the Golden Flashes were on the board after a 24-yard touchdown pass to Antwan Dixon.

So the Illini are trailing at home against the worst team in the MAC. Not ideal.

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Illinois 3, Kent State 0 — 11:38 left in 1st quarter

Chase McLaughlin led Illinois in scoring last season, which would be fine if he wasn't the Illini kicker. His 53 points — more than double the next closest player — were more of an indictment on the Illinois offense and it's inability to find the end zone.

McLaughlin's the early leader in 2018, too. Illinois forced a Kent State three-and-out on the first drive of the game and got the ball at the 50-yard line after a poor Golden Flashes punt. The Illini offense, though, couldn't get more than one first down and McLaughlin put Illinois on the board with a 50-yard field goal.

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

Five Illinois football players — Bennett Williams, Carmoni Green, Nate Hobbs, Lou Dorsey and Deon Pate — were suspended indefinitely for a violation of teams rules and will not play in today's game, Illinois announced before kickoff. Additionally, Larry Boyd and Verdis Brown will be academic redshirts for 2018 and not play this season.

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

And now what everyone has been waiting for — the weekly tradition here at the LIVE! Report — score predicitions from assorted Illinois media. It's a consensus:

Scott Richey, News-Gazette — 45-13 Illinois
Bob Asmussen, News-Gazette — 34-14 Illinois
Joey Wagner, Decatur Herald & Review — 35-14 Illinois
Mike Gasick, Gatehouse Media — 35-17 Illinois
Herb Gould, Chicago Sun-Times — 31-10 Illinois
Jim Cotter, WCGY — 41-14 Illinois
Erich Fisher, Rivals — 30-13 Illinois
Craig Choate, WCIA — 38-14 Illinois
Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune — 31-17 Illinois
Kedric Prince, Dispatch Argus — 38-17 Illinois
Robert Rosenthal, IlliniBoard — 41-23 Illinois

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

Today's Illini starters ...

QB — AJ Bush Jr.
RB — Ra'Von Bonner
WR — Sam Mays, Mikey Dudek, Ricky Smalling
TE — Austin Roberts
OL — Vedrian Lowe, Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, Nick Allegretti, Alex Palczewski

DE — Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree
DT — Jamal Woods, Tymir Oliver
LB — Del'Shawn Phillips, Jake Hansen
NB — Sydney Brown
CB — Cam Watkins, Jartavius Martin
S — Stanley Green, Delano Ware

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

Based on some early warmups, Illinois is going to start three freshmen on defense with Jartavius Martin at cornerback (with Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams not playing), Sydney Brown at nickel (he's actually first string) and Delano Ware at safety (Bennett Williams not playing). 

How many more freshmen play is the question. And just because they play now doesn't mean a redshirt season can't still happen. The new rule allows them to appear in four games and still save a year of eligibility. So if the Illini jump on Kent State early there's a fair chance a freshman quarterback might get some playing time. At least that wouldn't be a terrible route to take.

"Our redshirt approach just in general is if there’s a player that’s one of our best, we’re going to start him right away — freshman, senior, whatever," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "If we feel like he can help us, we’re going to do that. Then you let the rest of it kind of play out as much as anything. The odds are we’re going to get a chance to see some of our young players and they’ll tell us whether they need to be put on the shelf a while longer or if we need to get them more reps."

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

The first Illinois depth chart of the season was waiting for us media types in the press box this morning. I'm ... taking it with a fairly sizable grain of salt. Some of it's legit. AJ Bush Jr. at quarterback, the first string offensive line — Vederian Lowe, Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, Nick Allegretti and Alex Palczewski — the same it's been since the first day of camp. Bobby Roundtree at defensive end? Yeah, that's happening.

Some of it's a little questionable. Like Jamal Milan listed as a starter even though he hasn't practiced in about three weeks. Or Lou Dorsey, Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs all listed as starters even though they don't appear to be in uniform about 30 minutes before kickoff (clarification on that after the game, hopefully).

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

Plenty of teams had to deal with departing quarterbacks this fall. The trend seemed to be ... Don't win the job? Head somewhere else immediately if you can (see LSU and Nebraska in particular).

Illinois didn't have that after it named AJ Bush Jr. its starting quarterback Monday. Part of that is youth with three freshmen and a sophomore. The other? The job will be open again next season.

"I think all athletes want to come to a place and have an opportunity to compete," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "They understand. It’s obvious who the starter is. AJ has one year here, and then he’s moving on. I’ve never seen a player that deserves to start and deserves to play that didn’t get an opportunity to. Our young players, I see them pitching themselves, ‘Someday, I’m going to be in this role. In the meantime I’m going to learn as much as I possibly can from our starter.’ "

Bush's play on the field during training camp earned him the job. His immediate leadership, though, played a role in that, too. 

"There’s a routine you go through — how you prepare on a daily basis," Smith said. "In an ideal room, you have a guy that’s done it and knows exactly how to do it. When you’re young, you’re supposed to keep your head down and listen as much as anything. When you have the right example, places I’ve been, that’s what’s led to success. How you prepare to get ready for a season is exactly what AJ Bush has done."

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

No one really knows what the Sean Lewis offense will be at Kent State. The first-year coach closed practices, and he hasn't named a starting quarterback with kickoff approaching in just more than one hour. So specifics are out, but you can still have an idea on what the Golden Flashes will run based on where Lewis has spent the last few seasons working as Dino Babers' offensive coordinator at Bowling Green and Syracuse.

Let's take a look at the stats ... 

2017 Syracuse: No. 18 passing offense (294.8 yards) ... #70 rushing offense (161.5 yards) ... #23 overall offense (456.3 yards)

2016 Syracuse: No. 11 passing offense (321.3 yards) ... #115 rushing offense (119.7 yards) ... #42 overall offense (440.9 yards)

2015 Bowling Green: No. 5 passing offense (366.8 yards) ... #52 rushing offense (180.0 yards) ... #4 overall offense (546.8 yards)

So expect the Golden Flashes to throw the ball more than they run it. Probably. Either way, they're going to go fast.

"I think I read the other day they were pretty excited to get 150-plus plays in one of their scrimmages," Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "They’re going to go really, really fast, and they have some capable guys in their skill positions."

The Illinois defense has practiced against an uptempo offense the last month. Rod Smith's hire as offensive coordinator might help the Illini defense more than anything. Constantly working against a team that wants to move the ball as quick as possible can have dividends.

"You iron out all those kinks — from getting calls from the sideline to getting aligned and understanding what calls we want in certain situations," Nickerson said. "By practicing against that, it’s helped us tremendously."

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Illinois vs. Kent State — 11 a.m., BTN

The general consensus from the Illini players really the last two weeks? They're more than ready to play against someone else after practicing against each other for basically the entire month of August. Today's game also marks a fresh start after last year's 2-10 season.

"This day has been a long time coming for us," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "When you finish up the season like we did last year, you can’t wait to get back on the football field. So much has happened since then. It’s a different roster as much as anything — a different coaching staff.

"All of those first game things you’re pumped up about is where we are right now. Training camp went well. We had injuries like most people do, but I wouldn’t say a lot of major injuries. We’re in pretty good shape."

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It's that time of year again. Sure, the college football season technically started a week ago and there were games Thursday and Friday nights, but this is the real deal. The first true Saturday of the college football season is a little more special than the handful or so of games already in the books. (Can you believe New Mexico State has already played twice?!).

Illinois will play its first game of the season in about 90 minutes against Kent State, and the LIVE! Report will be running to capture every moment. Beat writer Scott Richey (that's me) will be at the helm until late in the fourth quarter.

Both Illinois and Kent State finished the 2017 season 2-10. Kent State fired its coach and hired (now) 32-year-old Sean Lewis, who got his first Division I assistant coaching job about 45 miles south at Eastern Illinois.

Illinois made some moves, too, with Lovie Smith hiring a new offensive coordinator (Rod Smith), new safeties coach/defensive passing game coordinator (Gill Byrd), a new defensive line coach (Austin Clark) and a new tight ends coach (Cory Patterson). Donnie Abraham's surprise departure during training camp also saw Smith promote his son, Miles, to an interim full-time assistant role coaching defensive backs.

That's a lot of new — for both teams. Is it enough new to get the Illini or Golden Flashes on a different path? Another 2-10 season at Kent State would be disappointing after the coaching change, but maybe not expected. Another 2-10 season at Illinois would be ... not ideal. Lovie Smith isn't on the hot seat now, but the Illini coach has already said year three is when results come. That needs to be backed up on the field for his seat to stay cool.

While you're getting ready for the 11 a.m. kickoff, catch up on all our Illinois football coverage this week courtesy of Bob Asmussen and yours truly ...

Bobby Roundtree wants to emulate Simeon Rice

Breakdown of the Illini-Golden Flashes matchup

Gameday Q&A with Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith

Talking Points with Kent State beat writer Alan Moff

Clear bags now a rule at Memorial Stadium

N-G staff picks for today's game

Illinois going for broke on defense

Major donation for football performance center

Meet those donors

Illini offense not a finished project

Final Word with Bob Asmussen

Updates galore are on the way from Memorial Stadium before and during today's game, so make sure to keep checking the LIVE! Report. After the game? All of our coverage of what should be an Illinois win. Stay tuned.