Bush Jr., Illini find rhythm after slow start

Bush Jr., Illini find rhythm after slow start

CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush Jr. didn't have any nerves about making his first career FBS start Saturday against Kent State. Just ask the Illinois quarterback. He'll tell you his confidence never wavered.

Bush does admit he was a little antsy, though, early against the Golden Flashes. It showed. The Illinois offense — built on rhythm and tempo — had neither in the first 30 minutes of the season opener.

Bush's timing was off in the passing game, and his receivers had a couple drops. The Illini offensive line missed on some blocks and protections, and the running backs didn't gain much traction in the ground game.

"You've got to make sure you get the trust back between the quarterback and the offensive line and make sure we're running routes the proper depth," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "There were a lot of things wrong in the first half. It was all of us together."

Illinois eventually got its offense established in the second half against Kent State. Athletes in space made plays. Bush led the entire way.

"Guys that haven't played a lot of football lately, there's an adjustment period you go through," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "Good football players make that adjustment, and that's what AJ did. AJ made adjustments in the second half, and he played better football."

Bush is one of his own worst critics. He called his first start just "OK" even though he finished with 329 yards of total offense. The Illini's slow start, he said, was "not acceptable."

"But that's football," Bush continued. "It's not always going to be perfect. We're not always going to be on the same page. ... I could have been quicker with my reads. I could have been better in all phases of the game. That's a given. On a great day, I could still be better.

"I'm also upset there's a lot of plays left out on the field. It could have been way better than what it was, but the most important stat was the 'W.'"

Illinois' biggest problem in the first half offensively was rhythm. As in there wasn't any. A team that wants to play fast plodded instead.

The Illini's first drive lasted seven plays — the final one a 50-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin. Only one of Illinois' next five possessions in the first half lasted longer than seven plays. The results were fairly similar — punt, fumble, punt, punt and missed field goal.

"We didn't get into much of a rhythm in the first half," Rod Smith said. "Everything was chopped up, disjointed. ... Whether it was first-game jitters or whatever it was, thank goodness that's behind us. I told the quarterbacks (Monday) morning I don't ever want to see that type of half again — ever — as far as I'm concerned. It was just a bad, bad performance the first half."

The second half was different. Illinois found its rhythm. More importantly, one of the worst scoring offenses in the country in 2017 found the end zone. The 31 points the Illini scored against Kent State were seven more than the season high from a year ago.

"We were able to get into a little bit of rhythm because of a couple big plays and were able to establish a tempo," Rod Smith said. "I think Kent State kind of wore down a little bit because of the tempo. We played better. That's the bottom line. We executed better in the second half."

That improvement in execution helped sustain Illinois' offense more than anything. Successful drives begat successful drives.

"After that first score we were definitely like, 'Oh yeah, now we've got it going,'" sophomore offensive lineman Vederian Lowe said. "You felt the morale go very high. You just felt a difference after that first touchdown. We knew we had it rolling.

"You notice when you start moving the ball more. Everybody's coming off the ball hard. Running backs are making plays. It just feels different when you start moving the ball and start scoring touchdowns."