CHAMPAIGN – If an Illini victory in the season-opener against Ball State was expected Saturday, the unexpected was getting ready to roar.
Through more than three-and-a-half quarters, Illinois was scrambling to keep up. Largely because of the defense’s inability to get off the field on third down, Illinois trailed 21-16.
Then everything changed.
Then Mike Dudek returned a punt 52 yards. Then Malik Turner made a spectacular 25-yard catch-and-run that advanced the ball to the Ball State six. Then freshman Mike Epstein barreled into the end zone. Then quarterback Chayce Crouch muscled in for a two-point conversion run that put the Illini ahead 24-21 with 2:06 to go.
But to win Saturday at Memorial Stadium, it would take one more big play. And that happened as the clock hit zero when defensive tackle Jamal Milan blocked a 54-yard field goal attempt by Morgan Hagee, swatting aside Ball State’s last-gasp hope.
“Right there,” Milan said while pointing to his right forearm while dancing in circles on the field. “It hit me right there.”
Coach Lovie Smith’s second Illini season started with some mistakes, some confusion and some unexpected changes. And with the defense unable to stop Riley Neal, Ball State’s 6-foot-6 scrambling quarterback, the cause looked lost.
Ball State converted 11 of 16 times on third down until the Illini flipped the switch late in the third quarter. Stopping Ball State on its final five third-down tries, the Illini defense started making plays. So did special teams and, finally, so did the offense.
“You find things out about yourself in a situation like that,” Smith said, trying to explain what happened when his team was faced with the possibility of losing. “We had them in a number of favorable third-and-long situations, but they kept converting.
“But in the end, the defense had to come through and take it away and stop them, and we did that.”
When James Gilbert scored on a three-yard touchdown run for Ball State with 4:24 left in the third quarter, it gave the visitors a 21-16 lead.
The Illini offense was dreadful in the third quarter. Three 3-and-outs produced minus 12 yards in total offense. It was so grim that quarterback Chayce Crouch called his offense together on the sideline and issued an angry challenge.
“Chayce grabbed us to the side and pulled us together and told us what we needed to hear,” recalled Turner, the senior receiver from Springfield. “He told us that this was not what our offense was going to be like. He was angry, and he should be angry. He expects more out of us as a whole.”
First, though, Crouch would throw an interception when his pass glanced off Turner’s helmet, tipped off Dudek’s hands and was scooped off the turf by diving Ball State safety Bryce Cosby. That made the situation seem even more grim, but the Illini defense held, forcing a punt.
Ball State punter Nathan Snyder squibbed a punt that Dudek fielded on one bounce at the Illini 13. He charged past the initial wave of tacklers, veered to the outside and wiggled his way to the Ball State 35, the 52-yard return bringing a Memorial Stadium crowd of 42,505 to its feet.
After a four-yard run by Epstein, Crouch found Turner, who shook tacklers, cut back and made it all the way to the Ball State six. It took Epstein two runs to reach the end zone, the TD making it 22-21. Crouch’s bullish conversion run expanded that lead to 24-21 with 2:06 to play.
The Illini defense would be challenged again. Ball State drove the ball quickly to the Illini 30. But a sack by freshman defensive end Isaiah Gay pushed Ball State back 13 yards and made them settle for a long field goal attempt.
The boot, with a slight breeze at the kicker’s back, never made it past the line of scrimmage thanks to Milan’s block.
The Illini offense had to make adjusments even before the opening kickoff. Smith put starting tackle Christian DiLauro and starting guard Larry Boyd on the bench due to a “coach’s decision.” It wasn’t until the second quarter that the offensive line was whole again and that didn’t last long when center Doug Kramer went down with a knee injury and did not return.
Starting defensive end James Crawford did not play due to a suspension.
But three true freshmen started on defense (safety Bennett Williams, cornerback Tony Adams and end Bobby Roundtree) and 24 players made their Illini debuts including 12 true freshmen.
Dudek, playing for the first time in 981 days due to a pair of knee injuries, caught the season’s first touchdown on a 16-yard connection with Crouch in the first quarter.
Epstein finished with 11 carries for 52 yards and two touchdowns, plus he added a pair of catches for 32 yards.
The defensive stars were linebackers Watson (fumble recovery, interception, 12 tackles) and junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips (16 tackles).
It had to be a crusher for Ball State, which outgained the Illini 375-216.
“It comes down to us not being able to finish when we had some opportunities in the fourth quarter,” coach Mike Neu said.
Illinois takes on Western Kentucky at 7 p.m., Saturday in its second straight home game.
HOOPS IN THE HOUSE – Illini men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood was the host for two official recruiting visits Saturday.
Landers Nolley, a 6-6, 4-star forward from Fairburn, Ga., was on campus. The Chicago native averaged 24.7 points and 7.1 rebounds for Langston Hughes High School last season. He’s also being recruited by Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Georgie and UConn.
Colin Castleton, a 6-11, 220-pound forward from Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., averaged 23.3 points, 11 rebounds and 5.4 blocks last season. He’s being pursued by Florida State, Ohio State, Florida and Purdue.
Both players are Class of 2018 prospects.
On campus today for an unofficial visit is Jaxson Hayes, a 6-10, 195-pound forward from Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller. He took an unofficial visit to Kentucky on Saturday and has official visits set later this month at Texas and Xavier.