CHAMPAIGN — Early in the fourth quarter on Saturday against Kent State, Illinois receiver Mikey Dudek crossed the middle of the field for a 24-yard catch to put the Illini at the 10-yard line and primed to break a 24-all tie.
On the play, Kent State defensive back Jamal Parker made contact with Dudek's left knee.
Dudek limped to the sideline, and three plays later Reggie Corbin pounded the ball into the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
On Monday, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith announced that Dudek was out for the season with a left knee injury, but did not confirm if it was another ACL tear.
“I wish I could do something,” Smith said. “We’re in mourning over there. Mike’s one of the all-time favorites. When you fight through adversity the way he has, it’s just tough, but he’s come back from tough situations before. He’ll do that again."
Dudek, a redshirt senior, missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with torn ACLs in his right knee, and played in seven games last year.
He had four catches for 65 yards on Saturday, in what could have been his final college football game.
“For me, it’s kind of hard to put it in to words a little bit. Mike Dudek has worked so hard throughout his career here," Smith said. "Some things are hard to understand. That's definitely one of them. Mike’s meant so much for our program."
Dudek had at least two receptions in each of the 21 games he played at Illinois. He was a Freshman All-American in 2014 when he had 76 receptions for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns.
"You can’t allow adversity to define your life," Dudek said on Twitter on Monday. "You must take the good with the bad and continue to move forward. I am forever (grateful) for all the support I have received these past 5 years. #NoBadDays Thank you Illini Nation."
Both Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Rod Smith said players like Champaign-native Dominic Stampley and freshman Carlos Sandy will need to fill Dudek's spot.
Ricky Smalling, Dudek and Sam Mays each started on Saturday.
“I hate it," Rod Smith said of losing Dudek. "You hate it for him. He hasn’t had any luck right now with this type of injury. It’s sad because I’ve watched that kid pour his heart and soul into his workouts and getting back. My heart goes out to him and his family."
In July at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Dudek said Rod Smith's offense reminded him of the role he played during his standout freshman season.
When quarterback AJ Bush Jr. arrived in Champaign, Dudek was one of the first to welcome the fifth-year graduate transfer into the program.
The two built a chemistry and had a plan to stuff the stat sheet.
“I’m not even thinking about football," Bush said on Monday. "I just care about him as a person. Mike welcomed me with open arms the first day I got here and we had big plans. It’s really upsetting, but he was in better spirits than I thought he would be. I’m super proud of him and I’m very upset at the situations. We don’t know why things happen in life."
Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week Jake Hansen leaned on Dudek last season after Hansen tore his ACL late in camp.
“It makes you sick to your stomach, just knowing what the guy has been through," Hansen said. "He’s such a good dude. You take advantage of having nothing wrong with your body and just being healthy.
“It’s so tough because he’s such a great guy and that something so bad can happen to him again and again and keep happening, but he’s one of the guys who helped me get through my season-ending injury. I think he’ll be able to help people through these experiences for sure. It’s tough."