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Illinois vs. Kent State Takeaways: Seeing Beyond the Initial Flash

What did we learn from an unbalanced first Saturday.

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Following the Illini’s comeback victory against the Golden Flashes of Kent State, we take a look back to analyze the key points moving forward.

A.J. A-OK

After a sluggish start, in concert with his teammates, coaches, and Memorial Stadium onlookers, A.J. Bush solidified his grip on the starting quarterback job with a positive second-half effort. Bush looked crisp in the passing game after the break, hooking up with Ricky Smalling and Mike Dudek on rare, but crucial downfield shots to keep drives alive and pick up necessary yardage chunks, on the Illini’s way to 28 second-half points.

More importantly, though, Bush impressed with his patient, physical running, racking up 139 yards on 21 attempts. Certainly, Bush will find fewer opportunities to sprint past and (literally) push over opposing defenders in Big Ten play. But his quiet confidence and constantly improving decision making provide optimism for continued and dramatic improvement at the quarterback position for the Illini in 2018.

Backfield Shuffle

Rod Smith and the Illini offense fed all three presumptive featured backs, resulting in a second half touchdown a piece for Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein, with a pair for Reggie Corbin. While the backfield share appears to be by design and a likely mainstay moving forward, Corbin separated himself as the most dynamic of the bunch, ripping off 79 yards on 10 carries, including a tight-roping 39-yard second half scamper to bring the Illini back level at 17-17.

Kent State v Illinois
Reggie Corbin shined for the Illini, punching in two second half touchdowns
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Epstein looked strong running between the tackles in his return to the fold, and Bonner appeared more svelte and less plodding compared to 2017.

However, Corbin’s playmaking ability will be a necessity if the Illini plan to meaningfully add to their 2018 win total.

The Replacements

In the first half, the Illini defense looked like an inexperienced unit overcoming major turnover, primarily due to transfer and suspension. To his credit, Golden Flash signal caller Woody Barrett played solid football all afternoon, taking advantage of the green Orange and Blue on the ground and through the air. Fortunately, similar to the offense, the second half brought a renewed intensity and far greater execution by the Illini D.

Minus late scratches due to suspension (Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs), Jake Hansen and Cameron Watkins asserted themselves as surprise stars, providing stability, limiting big plays, and recording a combined 25 tackles, including 7 for loss.

Lovie’s defense did well to stay in front of the football, forcing Barrett to plow forward, play after play, without the benefit of major mistakes on defense. While the Illini managed two takeaways, following a game capping, endzone pick by Del’Shawn Phillips, the Illinois defense will need to increase its noticeably deficient pressure on opposing quarterbacks and affirmatively force the action going forward, to assist an offense still finding its footing.

The thick and the thin

The unbalanced nature of the Illini’s Week 1 performance, against a mid-major opponent leaves more questions than answers. With a middling FCS Western Illinois group up next, the Illini can afford to send out another shorthanded squad Saturday night.

However, with South Florida and the Big Ten looming, Illinois cannot afford widespread injury and suspension to continue into September and October if bowling is a realistic endgame. Lack of depth and inexperience plagued the 2017 Illini, and this year’s rendition could be in for a similar fate if off the field issues linger.

Notwithstanding the slow start and apparent first half weaknesses in a close call against Kent State, a strong second half, filled with promising individual performances on both sides of the ball should give Illini nation a welcome reprieve heading into an in-state clash under the lights next Saturday.

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