Lovie Smith’s second season as head coach of the Fighting Illini had all the fans excited. Unfortunately, all of the excitement resulted in a bigger disappointment as the Illini were only able to take two wins on the year.
In a rare case, the Illini were favored to win the season opener against Ball State. However, the Cardinals did not go down without a fight.
Illinois looked like its old self on the first offensive possession of the game. The very first play resulted in a sack for a three-yard loss. On the next play, Chayce Crouch completed a 14-yard pass to Nathan Echard. On third and eight, Mike Epstein had nowhere to go as he was stopped for an eight-yard loss, forcing the Illini to punt.
On the ensuing drive, Patrick Nelson forced a fumble after a ten-yard completion and the ball was recovered by Illinois linebacker, Tre Watson. He returned the fumble 34 yards to the Ball State 16-yard line.
It then only took seven seconds for the Illini to score their first touchdown of the year. Chayce Crouch threw a strike to a leaping Mike Dudek in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown.
It was only fitting that Dudek scored the first touchdown of the year as he worked his way back from an injury that sidelined him for two years.
As the game went on, the Cardinals ran all over the Illini and proceeded to score touchdowns on their first two drives coming out of halftime, while Illinois went three and out three possessions in a row.
With Ball State up 21 to 16, Tre Watson forced an interception to give the ball back to the Illini. The Illini continued their offensive struggles as they proceeded to punt, miss a field goal and allow an interception on respective drives.
On the other hand, the defense caught some momentum as they forced another three and out. Mike Dudek then provided another spark for the dull offense by returning the punt 52-yards all the way to the Ball State 35-yard line.
The Illini took the momentum and regained a three point lead on a one-yard run by Mike Epstein. The drive was highlighted by a beautiful catch and run by Malik Turner that resulted in a 25-yard gain.
With just 2:06 left, the Cardinals had a final turn to tie or win the game. After moving the ball 39 yards, the Cardinals set up to kick a field goal to tie the game.
Then came one of the top plays of the year for the Fighting Illini. With the game on the line, Jamal Milan gave a great push and forced a blocked field goal to seal the win for Illinois.
Overall, a fantastic win that was way too close for comfort.