CHAMPAIGN — The tempo, speed and consistency the Illinois offense had built and displayed throughout training camp was missing.
All of the excitement the offense entered Saturday's game against Kent State with suddenly went flat in the first half.
Illinois had 168 yards of total offense, averaging 4.1 yards per play, and trailed by 14 points at halftime before things clicked and the Illini turned a corner.
Six of the first seven Illini drives ended with a punt, turnover or missed field goal.
Then the AJ Bush Jr. led offense scored on four straight possessions, totaling 6 minutes, eight seconds, to escape with a 31-24 season-opening win.
“Luckily there are two halves to a game, but I could not be more proud of how the guys competed in the second half," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "When you're down by 14 points and the momentum is not with you, it takes some character guys to step up."
But if the Illini offense never produced a first half like the one against Kent State again, it would be too soon.
“It was probably more of an execution thing, to be honest," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "Our fundamentals were complete garbage in the first half. We weren't very good anywhere offensively.
“We had to get in and make sure our guys get honed back in — whether it was first-game jitters or whatever it was. Thank goodness that’s behind us. I told the quarterbacks this morning I never want to see that kind of half again.
“It was a bad, bad performance in the first half. In the second half we were able to make adjustments and kind of calm our guys down a little bit, get them focused back in on what their job is from a fundamental standpoint and from a scheme standpoint. We came out and executed a little better."
In the second half Bush was 5-of-7 with 115 passing yards and 86 rushing yards to go with 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns from running back Reggie Corbin. All three Illini running backs — Corbin, Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner — scored in the third quarter.
Scoring possessions came fast and often with drives of 1:08, 0:48, 1:14 and 2:58. That's the offense Bush knew in camp.
“We can be very potent," Bush said. "We scored four times in a row. It was just clicking. Everyone was on the same page and all 11 were making things happen. In my opinion that’s how we played all of fall camp."
It was the first time the offense had seen full, in-game speed with a defense making adjustments. Rod Smith credited the Kent State defense for throwing looks at the Illini that caught the offense off-guard. But still, the key contributors of the offense maintained that it wasn't as much that Kent State was doing, but more what the Illini were doing — or in some cases, weren't doing.
“The first half was a lot of miscommunications. It wasn't just one person. It was me or someone up front or a conversion on the route," Bush said. "Every play it was something that was holding us back."
At halftime, the Illini gathered themselves. Corbin attributed it to the 10-minute water breaks the team got during training camp.
The high-speed offense is the norm, Corbin and Bush agree, not the 4.1 yards per play.
"When it’s not going like that, it’s weird and you have no idea what’s going on," Corbin said. "The good thing about our team is we didn’t start looking around and pointing fingers. We just came together like we usually do in practice because we had times, of course, in our camp within that month we had times where we had off days. There were some days we started off slow and finished in the end. It was just like one of those days."
When the Illini take the field at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Western Illinois, they will do so without receiver Mikey Dudek. Lovie Smith announced on Monday that Dudek will be out for the remainder of the season because of a knee injury. It's the third time in Dudek's career that a knee injury has sidelined him for a season.