It took an extra day for the first game of the year to start, but the delay had zero impact on Illinois. The Illini ran out of the tunnel on Saturday and proceeded to punch Kent State right in the mouth -- and they didn't let up. In what was probably the most complete game of the
Tim Beckman Bill Cubit era, the Illini dominated on both sides of the ball. By the time the third quarter rolled around, the coaching staff was able to get a better look at the team's depth by subbing in the backups. That wasn't accomplished all of last season.
Here are my thoughts after letting everything sink in:
We'll start with the offense. Wes Lunt was really unimpressive for the first series; he threw a terrible deep ball to Geronimo Allison (may have had something to do with massive hit he took while throwing the ball), but Allison went up over three defenders and hauled it in. From that point on, Lunt looked like the best quarterback in the conference. He made some great throws -- specifically the touchdown on the post-corner to Allison -- that other collegiate players just can't make. Overall, this may have been Lunt's best performance while wearing the Orange and Blue. The Illini will need the junior standout to continue to play at this level if they want to reach another postseason game.
Chayce Crouch, the backup quarterback, looked...shaky. Crouch was missing just about everything early on and the offense stalled in the second half. However once he got more comfortable he orchestrated a few nice drives, which was reassuring. His touchdown pass to Sam Mays in the endzone was an absolute beauty -- hopefully the Illini will see more of that going forward.
Josh Ferguson looked good, averaging 6 yards per carry. He broke a few long runs and gained a lot of yards, but this performance was nothing out of the ordinary for him. Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn also saw some action and I thought he did very well in his first game. I think he's solidified himself as the No. 2 back right now.
The wide receivers played well, but there were too many dropped balls. In the absence of Mikey Dudek, Marchie Murdock and Tyler White stepped up by hauling a few nice touchdown catches. No wide-out had more than 2 receptions, but that will change as the team faces better opponents. Freshmen Desmond Cain and Sam Mays also made some plays late; Mays high-pointed a ball perfectly for a highlight-reel touchdown late in the game (pictured below).
The offensive line was quiet, which is a good thing. Lunt did take a few hits, but it wasn't anything more than what we're accustomed to. Everyone, for the most part, did their jobs and played sound football.
Now for the defense, where the entire unit was really impressive. This was a bad Kent State team, but the Illini defense looked a lot better than last year. The first-stringers played extremely well and even caused several turnovers. For comparison, this was probably the worst offense Illinois has played since Miami (OH) in 2013 -- that defense forced zero turnovers. Another thing I was impressed by: tackling. Every time the Golden Flashes ran outside there was a swarm of defenders there to ready to attack the ball carrier.
There was only one instance of blown coverage on Saturday game and it came on a wheel route late in the game. However safety Clayton Fejedelem took a good recovery route and dragged the receiver down at the one yard line. The defense needs to keep doing exactly what they did against Kent State: limit mistakes and create turnovers.
Everything went smoothly on special teams, too. Taylor Zalewski made a field goal and hit all of his extra point attempts! V'Angelo Bentley also looked great returning the ball; he has the ability to change the course of a game every time he touches the ball.