Strong second half showing helps Illini grab comeback win


Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback AJ Bush (1) throws a pass during the game against Kent State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

After what looked like another on-brand game for the Illini as of late, true freshman defensive back Jartavius Martin made an interception at the beginning of the second half.

A singular interception may not seem like much, but it was the turning point Illinois needed.

Facing a 17-3 halftime deficit against Kent State, the Illini came back for a 31-24 win, a scoring feat they didn’t accomplish at all last season.

“After they made that touchdown, they (came) back and said, ‘That was all you, we got the momentum from you,’” Martin said.

The freshman was very nervous about his first collegiate game, despite knowing a few weeks in advance he would be playing an important role.

About 10 minutes before the game began, a press release was issued that defensive backs Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs, along with wide receiver Carmoni Green, tight end Louis Dorsey and defensive lineman Deon Pate were suspended indefinitely for violations of team rules. Head coach Lovie Smith only doubl down on the press release notes, offering no new information during his postgame press conference.

For Martin and the rest of the team, the pressure was on.

Throughout the game, Martin and many of the other starting freshmen had the older players in their ears with words of encouragement and corrections, but Martin didn’t quite find his confidence until the game-changing play.

The youthful defense was evident in the first half, with Martin and fellow freshman Delano Ware both struggling to read some of the Kent State receiver s routes.

The opening half of the game was plagued with missed open receivers, questionable run patterns and overall poor decisions. Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett ripped apart the Illini defense by rushing for a total of 117 yards on the day, most of which came in the first half.

“The first half was a half that most teams don’t want to have,” Smith said. “But it was a half you sometimes have to have.”

Last season, the Illini primarily settled for field goals, a trend that was repeated quite early with Chase McLaughlin opening the scoring with a 50-yard field goal, putting up the only Illinois points until the 9:36 mark in the third quarter.

Kent State scored the first touchdown with just under six minutes left in the first quarter, followed by a field goal and another touchdown in the second.

At the conclusion of the first half, Illini fans released a long, loud, collective“boo,” with their team down 17-3.

Although older players like Nick Allegretti and Mike Dudek didn’t see fit to even acknowledge the fans’ response, Martin was quite taken aback.

“I had never experienced nothing like that before,” Martin said. “The fans started booing, and I was like, ‘Alright it is time for us to pull it together.’”

Grad-transfer AJ Bush never let the fans’ negative reaction to the team or his personal errors affect him and, instead, just heads back under center.

“He bounces back; he never gets down,” running back Reggie Corbin said. “He never got frustrated at all.”

Bush came out in the second half hot, and he patiently waited for the rest of his offense to catch up.

Meanwhile, sophomore Jake Hansen demonstrated why coaches have raved about his play. After sitting out all of last season due to injury, Hansen picked up 15 tackles on the day.

And despite the defense’s struggles, the team may have them to thank for walking away with a win. After a Corbin run gave the Illini their first touchdown advantage of the game at 31-24, senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips stopped the Kent State attack with an end zone interception.

Bush’s general composure in the second half helped set up a score from the depth chart’s top three running backs, Ra’Von Bonner, Mike Epstein and Corbin.

Out of the three running backs, Corbin put together the top performance of the day, rushing for 86 yards and two touchdowns. However, Bush led the team in rushing with 139 yards to add to his 190 through the air.

Despite how they started, Bush knew they were going to win.

“We had been practicing too good as a team,” Bush said. “We were practicing at 100 percent, but were playing at 50 in the first half. We were moving the ball, we just weren’     t finishing. Once we get all 11 on the same page, we are going to score.”


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