CHAMPAIGN — Jartavius Martin saw the ball bounce off the hands of Kent State receiver Trey Herrell and knew it was his opportunity to pluck it out of the air.
With 10 minutes, 44 seconds left in the third quarter and trailing by 14 points, that's exactly what Martin, an Illinois freshman defensive back, did for his first career interception.
Martin fumbled the ball on the interception, but Stanley Green pounced on it to save the possession for Illinois.
Four plays later the Illinois football team got its first touchdown of the season on an 8-yard touchdown run by Ra'Von Bonner.
The momentum the Illini lacked in the first half — they entered the locker room trailing by 14 to a chorus of boos — suddenly shifted.
Illinois scored on its next three offensive possessions for a come-from-behind, 31-24 win against Kent State in Saturday's season-opener at Memorial Stadium.
"It just played out," Martin said. "I got an interception and the offense fed off the momentum and went and scored."
But the defense needed one more stop with just under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
With Kent State threatening at the Illinois 4-yard line, quarterback Woody Barrett was forced out of the pocket and heaved a ball into the end zone — into the waiting arms of linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips.
Right then, Phillips said he knew the Illini had escaped with a victory.
"When I caught it, in my head I said, 'All right. It's over,'" Phillips said of his first career pick.
After Illinois' first offensive touchdown of the season, the same Illini (1-0) defense that was carved and chewed up in the first half held Kent State (0-1) in check, forcing a turnover on downs. It was the first fourth-down stop of the game for the Illini after Kent State converted its first three attempts.
Then new Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith's offense showed a new gear, tallying up 301 of its 469 yards in the second half, while producing four scoring drives.
“Defense forced a turnover, we scored with momentum, especially with our offense," said Illinois receiver Mikey Dudek, who had four catches for 65 yards. "It’s easy to get stuff going with the fast pace we have.”
Running back Reggie Corbin capped off the three-play drive by tight-roping down the left sideline for 39 yards to tie the game at 17-17 with 6:11 left in the third quarter, then added a 1-yard scoring run with 10:39 left in the game. He finished with 79 yards and two touchdowns after rushing for 78 yards all of last season.
Kent State responded by going 75 yards in eight plays before Barrett scored on a 4-yard keeper to take a 24-17 lead with 3:20 left in the third quarter.
But the Illini were locked in on offense. The ensuing possession was a three-play drive capped off by a 5-yard touchdown run from Mike Epstein, who missed the final seven games of last season with a foot injury.
Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. accounted for 329 yards of total offense (139 rushing and 190 passing) in his first Division I start.
Despite throwing for just 75 yards in the first half and rushing for 53, Bush knew the Illini weren't done, and said as much in the locker room at halftime.
“I told my team that we are gonna win this game," Bush said. "I told them, ‘They aren’t better than us and we’re killing ourselves.’”
The Jake Hansen-led Illinois defense allowed just one score in the second half. Hansen finished with 15 tackles and tied a school record with six tackles for loss.
Hansen missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
“It’s exciting, it’s also a blessing," Hansen said of the six tackles for a loss. "You take being healthy for granted. I’m just so happy to be able to be here and play a good game with the team. Never had so much fun in my life, playing with my brothers and competing.”
First-year Kent State coach Sean Lewis' team racked up 453 yards of total offense, including 270 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns from Barrett, who also rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown.
“They played hard, there weren’t a lot of LOAFS (lack of effort plays), they fought and came out fast," Lewis said. "No moral victories, though. We came on this trip to get a victory and we let them off the hook. We beat ourselves down the stretch. For year one, game one, it is something we can certainly build upon."
Prior to the game, the team announced an indefinite suspension of five players: Safety Bennett Williams, TE Louis Dorsey, CB Nate Hobbs, WR Carmoni Green and DL Deon Pate.
“We have some team rules and if you break the team rules, there are consequences," Illini head coach Lovie Smith said. "Most of the time it’s not a death sentence, and that won’t be the case for these players, but they missed the first game and they’re still suspended indefinitely."
Sophomore offensive lineman Larry Boyd and freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown were announced as academic redshirts and out for the season.