Illini, Dudek manage a great escape against Ball State and win 24-21


Quentin Shaw

Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch attempts a pass during the Illini’s matchup with the Ball State Cardinals. The Illini won 24-21.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

With his first reception in three years, Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek caught a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Illini a 6-0 lead over Ball State.

Then, when the Illini needed a play out of him the most, he came through again. The Illini were down 21-16 late in the fourth quarter when Dudek busted off a 52 yard punt return to put the Illini into Ball State territory and eventually scored the game winning touchdown.

“It’s been a long road for me,” Dudek said. “To be able to come out and produce for my team early on was kind of surreal.”

There were emotional moments for the senior receiver, who has spent the last two seasons on the shelf with injury.  Dudek did not linger in the moment, instead reminding Illini fans what they’ve been missing without him, catching 2 passes for 47 yards, and gaining a total of 87 yards in punt returns en route to a 24-21 win.

“Right when the clock struck zero,” Dudek said. “I got kind of teary-eyed just thinking about where I’ve been, thinking about all my teammates and coaches that have had my back through this entire process.”

Other than Dudek’s touchdown catch,  it was a trying 1st quarter for the Illini, who trailed 7-6 at the break. The offensive line struggled to give quarterback Chayce Crouch the time to pick his passes, and the Illini could not move the ball in the air or on the ground.

The Illini finally found their feet in the second quarter, in large part to true freshman running back Mike Epstein. Epstein picked up first downs on consecutive plays – one on the ground and one through the air – before eventually punching it across the goal line to give the Illini a 13-7 lead.

“I’ll remember in high school my first (touchdown), I feel like college will be the same way,” Epstein said. “It felt so good to get it off my belt. It felt good that the team trusted me to do my part.”

With the aid of a pass-interference call and a 31 yard catch-and-run from Dudek, the Illini managed to get the ball to the Cardinals’ 32-yard line, but they were unable to find the endzone and settled for a field goal, making the score 16-7 at the half.

Just when it seemed like the Illini might start to put the game in cruise control, the Ball State offense came out of halftime ready to play, and the Illini defense did not. The Cardinals rolled over the Illini defense twice in the third quarter, and quarterback Riley Neal picked the coverage apart through the two scoring drives.

Third down was a huge struggle for the young Illini defense, who consistently set up third-and long situations, only to allow Ball State to convert 12 of 21. Ball State’s third touchdown came on a third down conversion attempt. Head coach Lovie Smith noted that the Illini especially struggled when Neal tucked the ball and took off.

“We had some favorable third down situations, third and long,” Smith said. “The quarterback scrambled for first downs, and we can’t allow that to happen. Those are the things that we should be able to tighten up.”

Another area of concern was the Illini’s inability to establish the run game. In a game where Crouch and Kendrick Foster were expected to run all over the Ball State defense, the Illini only managed 71 yards on the ground.

The game took a turn for the memorable in the fourth quarter. Illinois seemed to be headed to a shock upset when a pass deflected off of Malik Turner’s helmet into the hands of a Cardinals defender. But when the Illini needed some magic to get back in the game, it was Dudek who stepped up to deliver.

The receiver fielded a punt deep in his own territory, but danced his way through the punt coverage all the way into Ball St. territory. Then it was Turner’s turn to step up, as he turned a short catch upfield to the goal line, and Epstein was there to punch it across and give the Illini the 24-21 lead.

Jamal Milan blocked a last-second, 54-yard field goal attempt by the Cardinals and the Illini escaped week 1 with the win.

“It says something about you when it’s a tight game and you find a way to win. That’s what’s important. We wanted to be 1-0, get one win, and we have that. And the way we got it, we’re going to learn from it.”