Illini Claim Season Opener, 24-21


Published on September 5 2017 7:54 am
Last Updated on September 5 2017 7:54 am

Jamal Milan's big paw blocked a late field goal from Ball State to seal Illinois' 24-21 win in its season opener.

Welcome Back, Mike Dudek

After missing the last two seasons due to knee injuries, junior wide receiver Mike Dudek didn't waste any time in his first game back. The Naperville, Illinois, native got the Illini on the board in the first quarter with a 16-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Chayce Crouch, Dudek's first catch of the game.

The 2014 Freshman All-American also made an impact on special teams, setting up the Illini to take the lead with a 52-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter. Dudek finished the day with two catches for 47 yards and a touchdown to go along with three punt returns for 55 yards (18.33 yards per return).

Immediate Impact for Mike Epstein

It didn't take long for the former St. Thomas Aquinas High School standout to make an impact for the Orange and Blue, as the freshman running back found the end zone twice on the day.

Early in the second quarter, Epstein capped off a 12-play drive with a six-yard touchdown run. After a big return from Dudek and a 25-yard reception by Malik Turner got the Illini into the red zone, Epstein gave the Illini the 24-21 lead with a one-yard touchdown run with 2:06.

Epstein finished the day with 11 carries for 54 yards and 2 TDs, to go along with 32 receiving yards.  

Tre (Turnover) Watson

Junior linebacker Tre Watson was all over the field for the Illini on Saturday, totaling 12 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The opportunistic Watson scooped up a Ball State fumble early in the first quarter to set up Mike Dudek touchdown. Watson got his hands on the ball again late in the third quarter, intercepting a Riley Neal pass and returning it to the Ball State 21-yard line. The interception was the first of Watson's career.

Last Stand for Illini Defense

Following the Epstein touchdown to take a 24-21 lead, the Illini defense needed one last stand to secure the victory. After a sack by freshman Isaiah Gay took the Cardinals out of field goal range, Ball State was forced to attempt a 54-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.

Sophomore defensive lineman Jamal Milan got a hand on the Morgan Hagee kick to give Illinois a 1-0 record on the season.

Young Illini

Illinois was forced to rely on their young players on Saturday, as 24 players made their college debut. Twelve true freshman saw the field for the Illini, including Ricky Smalling, Bennett Williams, Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs, James Knight, Blake Hayes, Kendall Smith, Louis Dorsey, Mike Epstein, Larry Boyd, Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree.
Lovie Says

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith: "Nothing like winning the football game. It was the first game of the season and you put an awful lot into it. Everybody wants to get off to a good start and for us, you want to be challenged in every way so  we really have something to measure our football team by. We had a lead in the first half, not playing a great third quarter and then having to reach down and pull out a win. It said an awful lot about our young team. As we knew going into the game, there were going to be a lot of young players that were going to play. I think we had 24 first-year players out on the football field today. We grew… I like the way the team finished. We realize we have a long ways to go and we will. We will get ready for Western Kentucky next week."

Team Notes

• Illinois has won 20 straight home-openers (last loss 1997 vs. Southern Mississippi), the fourth-longest streak in the nation.

• Illinois has an all-time record of 81-42-5 in season-openers and are 58-27-4 when opening the season at home.

• Illinois is 24-4 in Aug./Sept. home games dating back to the start of 2007.

• Illinois is 2-0 all-time against Ball State.

• Illinois had 10 first-time starters - six on defense (S Bennett Williams, CB Tony Adams, DE Bobby Roundtree, DT Tymir Oliver, DE Sean Adesanya, LB Del'Shawn Phillips) and three on offense (WR Dominic Thieman, OL Doug Kramer, OL Zeke Martin, OL Adam Solomon).

• Illinois started three true freshmen (S Bennett Williams, CB Tony Adams, DE Bobby Roundtree). In the previous 42 years, Illinois started a total of 12 true freshmen.

• Illinois started three true freshmen on defense in the season opener for the first time since 1980 (3).

• Illinois played 24 student-athletes for the first time in their careers, including 12 true freshmen (Smalling, Williams, Adams, Hobbs, Knight, Hayes, Smith, Dorsey, Epstein, Boyd, Gay, Roundtree).

• Illinois started multiple true freshmen in the season opener for the first time since 2006 when future NFL stars TE Jeff Cumberland and CB Vontae Davis started against Eastern Illinois. Only twice since at least 1975 has Illinois started multiple true freshmen in the same season opener (2 in 2006, 4 in 1980).

• Illinois started two true freshmen defensive backs (S Bennett Williams, CB Tony Adams) in the season opener for the first time since at least 1975.

• Ball State did not convert any of its final five third downs after starting the day 12-16 on third downs.

• Illinois Week 1 captains: OL Nick Allegretti, QB Chayce Crouch, TE Nathan Echard, RB Kendrick Foster, DL Tymir Oliver, LB Tre Watson