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On Friday night in chilly Madison, Wis., Illinois football kicked off Lovie Smith's fifth year in charge. Here's what columnist Bob Asmussen was thinking at halftime as the Illini fell behind 28-7:

1. Yes, this is weird. Really weird. Only thing that would have seemed more fitting would be to open on Halloween. .... in the fog. But, hey, it's football.

2. Let me write this for the last time: two months ago, I never thought we would be here.

3. And let me write this every week: more important than touchdowns, field goals, tackles, wins and losses is the safety of everyone involved. We must remind ourselves that no matter how much we love college football, it is still just a game. An awesome game, but still JUST a game. Take care guys.

4. We might have found a positive out of COVID-19: a more reasonable start date for the college football season. The sport had been inching up to the calendar to the point where I feared Fourth of July football was just around the corner. While late Ocober has some drawbacks (I can see my breath and my hands are cold), it still feels like football weather. The extended gap between the end of the regular season and bowl season has always bugged me. This year, the spacing is going to be much more reasonable. Here's hoping future college seasons start in mid- to late-September.

5. Great to hear former Illini kicker Mike Bass on the radio with Brian Barnhart on Friday morning. The barefoot wizard hit five field goals to beat the Badgers in 1982, including the game-winning 46-yarder in a 29-28 Illinois victory. Wisconsin set up the kicker's heroics with star receiver Al Toon's trick-play option pass to Jeff Nault. It was all for naught.

6. Nice of BTN to lead its broadcast with a replay of James McCourt's game-winning field goal in 2019.

7. BTN sideline reporter Rick Pizzo accurately summed up the weirdness of the game right before kickoff, pointing to the empty stands and saying "surreal. It just doesn't seem to make any sense. Even the players taking the field during warmups were looking up almost expecting a late-arriving crowd that's not coming."

Well done, Rick.

8. Tough start for Illinois running back Mike Epstein. After all the time he put in to get back on the field, fumbling on his first carry had to be disappointing. The Wisconsin defense looked like the 2019 Illini, punching the ball away from Epstein. It happens. Smart of offensive coordinator Rod Smith to give Epstein another carry on the next series.

9. One reason Wisconsin has been so successful for so long is its ability to take advantage of other's mistakes. Graham Mertz made good use of the early gift. So much for the Badgers missing Jack Coan. Clearly, coach Paul Chryst trusts Mertz.

10. The BTN camera crew located anxious Illinois linebacker Mile Eifler on the sidelines early in the game. Eifler has to sit the first half because of a targeting penalty in the Redbox Bowl. I have a feeling Eifler will play well once he enters in the second half.

11. Excellent use of the transfer rule by the Wisconsin. Andy Vujnovich, a punter from Columbus, Wis., booms a 60-yarder on his first Big Ten try. He was granted a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately after transferring from Division III Dubuque.

12. Hey, there has been a tight end sighting at Illinois. Daniel Barker helps keep an drive going with a third-down catch. Barker and Georgia transfer Luke Ford figure to get plenty of business this season.

13. At the college home of Elroy Hirsch (ask your grandparents), Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters looked like "Crazy Legs" on a long scramble in the first half. Peters promised he is in the best shape of his life. The 30-yard run was convincing. He did it again in the second quarter with another long run.

14. OK, there are no fans in the stands to cause a distraction. So, there is no excuse for Illinois to have to burn a timeout as the clock runs down. Maybe better that than a hurried play. And it is the first game of the season, so there will be mistakes.

15. Obviously, Wisconsin misses Jonathan Taylor and those road-graders he had blocking for him last year. The running game doesn't seem nearly as dangerous as in previous seasons. Fortunately for the Badgers, they are blessed with a stout defense.

16. If you asked me going into the season, "Which defender could Illinois least afford to lose?" I would have instantly answered "Jake Hansen." When the linebacker left the game after getting dinged in the first half, the Illinois defense didn't look the same. Here's hoping Hansen is able to return soon.

17. Late in the first half, Illinois had a chance to get on the board with a McCourt field goal. Instead, the coaches decided to go for it on fourth down. The attempt failed. But ...

18. A few ticks later, Illinois backup linebacker Tarique Barnes made up for it by returning a fumble for a touchdown. Cutting the lead to 14-7 and giving his team some hope.

19. Bad end to the first half for Illinois, which gave up a pair of late touchdowns to the Badgers to trail 28-7. How did Danny Davis get so open in the final minute? Lovie Smith has plenty to talk to his team about during the break, which can't come soon enough for the Illini.

20. So much for Mertz being a liability to the Badgers in his first start. The redshirt freshman completed 14 of 14 passes for 190 yards in the opening half ... with four touchdowns. The Aaron Rodgers fan looked a lot like the Packers star.

Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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