Tate: We've seen this before

Tate: We've seen this before

There’s good reason why Lovie Smith closed Illini practices the last few weeks.

He had a great deal to keep a lid on.

Like the status of key defensive backs Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs.

Those two absentees, plus an injured Tony Adams, necessitated the use of three freshmen in an area where experience is critical.

Next thing you know, onetime Auburn recruit Woody Barrett was completing 28 of 41 passes for 270 yards (he also rushed for 117) as Kent State led 17-3 and 24-17 before succumbing, 31-24, to the UI’s marginally superior forces at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

It reminded of last year’s opening 24-21 comeback win over a Ball State team that, like Illinois and Kent State, finished 2-10 in 2017.

Missing some key guys
To be honest — these Sunday epistles aren’t supposed to be fiction — that 17-3 deficit, causing Illini fans to boo their team into the locker room, was hard to forget even as the Illini outscored Kent State 28-7 in the second half.

With 11 key absentees — four injured, behemoths Larry Boyd and Verdis Brown ineligible and tight end Lou Dorsey joining four others on the suspension list — the UI was ill-prepared to deal with the surprising stiff competition from Barrett & Co.

And there is reason to wonder, after an assumed win over Western Illinois next Saturday night, whether the Illini might run into another streak of setbacks ... even though the schedule is probably the weakest the UI will face through 2025.

Getting it together late
Lovie Smith preaches turnovers at every opportunity, and this game turned on two interceptions and a 4th-and-1 stop, the latter involving linebacker Jake Hansen, who showed six behind-the-line tackles among his 15 stops.

Down 17-3, the Illini got life in the third quarter on a deflected interception and a recovered fumble on the same play. Kent State wasn’t ready for the quick turnaround as AJ Bush Jr. hit Ricky Smalling and Mikey Dudek with strikes ahead of Ra’Von Bonner’s 8-yard TD.

The second big turning point came on a 4th-and-1 stop. Thus inspired, Illinois scored on back-to-back runs of 23 and 39 yards by Reggie Corbin.

“We were able to find our rhythm in the second half,” said Dudek, and that appeared to be the case. Illinois scored on four straight possessions, all by running backs as Bush mixed the play calls sent down by new offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

Looking at the big picture
The momentum shifted one last time as Barrett hit another string of passes and reached the Illini 5-yard line under the 3-minute mark.

Finally, the Illini braced, and Del’Shawn Phillips made an end zone interception of Barrett’s pressured pass of fourth down.

— Bush showed winning qualities as a runner (139 net yards) and hit 13 of 23 passes with no interceptions. Give him a solid B.

— The offensive line had no excuses, all five working together since the beginning of August. Late-game successes against a tiring opponent lifted that unit out of the low-D category.

— Without Dorsey, the tight ends weren’t involved in the passing game but the front-line receivers made up for it.

— Corbin was the most impressive of the running backs, who are a journeyman group.

— The defensive line had one sack out of 40-plus Barrett dropbacks. The tackles got beat repeatedly on inside runs. That unit gets a D.

— Hansen was outstanding on defense, and Phillips had his moments. They’ll be OK.

— For what seems like decades, the Illini secondary has been a step slow in pass coverage, and that was too often the case again. If Kent State can pass for 270 yards, what will South Florida and Penn State do?

— The kicking game is in the great hands of Blake Hayes (a terrific punter) and Chase McLaughlin.

Bring on Western Illinois.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com