Illinois vs. Kent State: Press Box Bundle

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

As I begin to cover my fourth season of Illinois football, I wanted to try something new.

After each Illinois game, I will be sharing, what I like to call, the Press Box Bundle. Here you can catch up on all the information you might have missed during The Daily Illini sports staff’s coverage of the game. Each week I plan to share my quick in-game observations, a collection of tweets, our video and photo recap, and links to reporters’ stories.

Recap video

First-half observations:

Illinois was able to get on the board first with a nice 50-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin, but that’s all the team had going for them. AJ Bush demonstrated noticeable athleticism, being quick on the run. However, he couldn’t find his receivers enough, and moving down the field became a huge issue.

Kent State QB Woody Barrett ran all over the Illini defense. The young secondary didn’t help the cause, leaving receiver after receiver wide open. It became more than clear that the defense was missing suspended players Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams.

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    The team just looked flat-out unprepared. The long and continuous “boo” from the crowd as the team headed into halftime was more than warranted.

    Second-half observations:

    After a three and out continued the Illini struggles from the first half, a pick-off by freshman Jartavius Martin put the excitement back into the stadium. A sigh of relief was evident, even with the muffled press box glass that stands between me and a several-second free-fall to bleacher seats below.

    Finally, the Illini started to look like they did in training camp. Rod Smith moved quickly and got the ball to playmakers Ricky Smalling for a 24-yard gain and Mike Dudek to bring them within the 10-yard line. The next drive for the Illini was all Reggie Corbin, and, if anything, he demonstrated why he should get the ball.

    While the offense picked up the slack, the defense still couldn’t keep up. Interestingly enough, the problem is almost the exact opposite of last year. Late in games, the defense would be relied upon, but it was all up to the offense in this one. The defense found themselves riding the wave of sophomore LB Jake Hansen, who was all over the field. While it was a positive to see him produce after missing all of last season, some key defensive players like Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay were quiet for a majority of the game. While the goal-line stand for Illinois that was capped off with Del’Shawn Phillips’ interception in the end zone was impressive, it masked a lot of the defense’s poor play.

    Offensively, the team has the ability to score quickly, but it is all about settling into a game environment. As the game went on, it was obvious that Rod Smith began to understand what works best for his team. It’s for the better, I walked past the man during halftime and a breeze of frustration almost knocked me over.

    As for Hardy Nickerson, it will just be about continuing to prepare those young DBs. The position may be one of the deepest on the Illinois roster, but the game experience still serves vital.

    Closing thoughts:

    Night and day.

    Fans at Memorial Stadium might as well have seen two completely different teams on Saturday.

    The first half showed signs of the year prior: a young team that just couldn’t make the plays needed to win ball games. Despite a couple twists and turns from Bush, the team looked like an utter mess. Head to the second half, and the team that was garnering so much praise during training camp finally broke free. The ball was being put in the hands of the team’s top playmakers, and that led to three touchdowns in the final 9:36 of the third quarter.

    In many ways, this could just be a game you throw aside. First game jitters can always hold a team back. Once the group got comfortable, it looked more like the Illini team we all expected to see against Kent State. However, holes in the Illini’s preparation and general on-field production were definitely exposed, and I can only imagine that head coach Lovie Smith would like to fill those holes before the next game. If the Illini have another close call against Western Illinois, the flood of optimism that surrounded this team in the preseason could run dry quickly.

    Grades and game notes

    Game recap

    The game as told by Twitter

    Photos of the game