Illinois Tops Kent St. 31-24, Extends Home-Opener Win Streak
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois defeated Kent State 31-24 on Saturday to extend its home-opener win streak to 21 games, the fourth-longest in the nation.
But the win didn't come easy for an Illinois team expected to improve upon a 2-10 season from last year.
Following a lackluster first half that saw Kent State leading 17-3, Illinois quarterback AJ Bush showed the crowd of 31,898 why offensive coordinator Rod Smith called him a "dynamic, dual threat." Bush passed for 190 yards on 23 attempts, and rushed for 139 yards on 21 carries.
"Any team that judges us off this game will be in for a rude awakening, I promise you'" Bush said after the game.
Reggie Corbin carried 10 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns for the Illini (1-0), while Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner added rushing touchdowns.
Woody Barrett, announced by first-year Kent State coach Sean Lewis as the starting quarterback at game time, was 28-of-41 passing for 270 yards and two touchdowns. He threw an interception late when Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips picked off a short pass in the end zone that would have tied it with less three minutes remaining.
Barrett and sophomore Dustin Crum had battled for the starting spot since spring.
Barrett also was the leading rusher for the Golden Flashes with 18 carries for 117 yards and one touchdown.
Mike Carrigan rushed for 62 yards on eight carries and a touchdown for Kent State (0-1).
Before the game, Illinois announced the indefinite suspension of five players, including three starters: safety Bennett Williams, cornerback Nate Hobbs and tight end Lou Dorsey. Wideout Carmoni Green and defensive tackle Deon Pate also were suspended.
The team said the suspensions were for "breaking team rules." No further information was available, nor was it certain how long the players will be out, although coach Lovie Smith indicated after the game it might be sooner rather than later.
"It's not a death sentence," Smith said. "And that won't be the case with these players."
With 2:11 left and Illinois up 31-24, Kent State drove to the Illini 2-yard-line. After being backed up to the 6, Barrett dropped back on fourth down. Carrigan had slipped to the left and was open briefly in the back of the end zone. Barrett fired the ball and Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips leaped and snared the interception, ending the Kent State threat and securing the Illinois victory.
Illlinois was expected to cruise to victory over a Kent State team picked by most to finish last in the Mid-American Conference. But Smith's offense didn't awaken until midway through the third quarter, finally bringing the crowd to its feet as it struck twice in less than three minutes to tie the game at 24.
A few minutes later, Corbin punched his way in on a 1-yard carry to cap an eight-play, 55-yard drive that put Illinois up for good.
Illinois: Hosts Western Illinois on Saturday.
Kent State: Hosts Howard on Saturday.