Big Ten football teams don’t usually consider early season matchups against MAC opponents to be critical tone-setting games. But Lovie Smith and the Illini found themselves in this situation last season, as the home opener was viewed as the most winnable game on the schedule at the time. A loss would’ve meant that a winless season was a very real possibility.
In Smith’s first game with his handpicked recruits, Illinois struck first with relics of the previous regime as Chayce Crouch completed a 16-yard pass to Mike Dudek for the first score of the game.
Chayce Crouch to Mike Dudek 16-yd Touchdown pic.twitter.com/VwWz44dR46— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 2, 2017
A botched 2-point conversion soured the mood as the Illini took a 6-0 lead over the Cardinals.
On the following possession, Ball State put together a 15-play, 80-yard drive that included four (!) third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion. This was an early indicator of a problem that would plague the Illini the rest of the year, as Hardy Nickerson’s unit would fail to consistently stop teams on third down. After making the extra point, the Cardinals took a 7-6 lead over the Illini, and the anxiety was palpable among the Illinois faithful.
Garrick McGee’s offense then held onto the ball for about a minute on the next possession as they went 3-and-out to put the defense right back on the field. This was yet another red flag that would haunt the Illini going forward and ultimately lead to McGee’s firing at the end of the season.
Later in the second quarter, Mike Epstein reached pay dirt in a drive that confirmed his status as an immediate impact player at the running back position.
Freshman RB Mike Epstein committed to Illinois Football 2 years & 1 month ago pic.twitter.com/xtf7ffreF5— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 2, 2017
Once Illinois got the ball back, the Illini promptly marched down the field and put it through the uprights to extend their lead to 16-7 going into halftime.
Just when Illini fans had begun to get more comfortable, Ball State started the second half with yet another monstrous 15-play touchdown drive from its own 25 to tighten the game back up at 16-14. This drive featured another three third-down conversions by the Cardinals, including one from 3rd and 9, as the Illini defense simply could not get off the field.
And again, the Illinois offense did the defense absolutely no favors by hanging onto the ball for only 53 seconds of game time, as they went 3-and-out before giving the ball back to the Cardinals. This set the stage for Ball State to take advantage of the already exhausted Illinois defense, and the Cardinals strung together a 13-play touchdown drive with three more third-down conversions, two of which were from 3rd and 10.
With the Ball State lead now 21-16, Illinois fans were now bracing for what could be an opening day home blowout by a below-average MAC opponent.
The Illinois offense continued to languish through most of the fourth quarter, but the Illini defense tightened up and stifled the Ball State offense. With 5:50 left in the game, Crouch threw an interception that seemingly sealed Illinois’ fate. But the defense forced a 3-and-out, and Mike Dudek returned the ensuing punt 52 yards to the Ball State 35.
Newly energized, the offense came on for one last attempt to regain the lead. And this time, Crouch and company delivered as Epstein and Malik Turner led the way across the short field to the endzone. A successful two-point conversion gave Illinois the 24-21 lead.
About 2 minutes remained when Ball State got the ball back, and they quickly diced through the drained Illinois defense. The Cardinals were stopped at the Illinois 36 and they sent out the field goal unit. Defensive lineman Jamal Milan then played the hero for Illinois.
Although this game ended well, it showcased many of the problems that the Illini have still not yet decisively answered. With luck and a more experienced roster, the upcoming home opener against Kent State will hopefully be a little less nerve wracking for Illini fans.
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