Illinois was booed off the field by the home crowd at halftime, but the Illini responded by rushing for touchdowns on four of their first five second-half possessions to erase a 14-point deficit and rally for a 31-24 season-opening victory over Kent State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin’s 1-yard touchdown blast with 10:39 to play gave Illinois its first lead since the first quarter as Lovie Smith’s squad held off an inspired Kent State team playing its first game under 32-year-old Illinois native Sean Lewis - the youngest coach of an FBS team.
Senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips’ interception in the end zone on fourth-and-goal with 2:21 left wrapped up Illinois’ 21st consecutive win in a home opener and snapped the program’s 10-game losing streak.
Graduate transfer quarterback A.J. Bush Jr., making his first FBS start after stints at Nebraska and Virginia Tech, rolled up 190 passing yards and 139 rushing yards in his Illinois debut. Corbin posted 79 rushing yards and 2 scores while sophomore linebacker Jake Hansen (15 tackles) tied a school record with 6 tackles for loss.
Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett, a transfer from Auburn, produced 387 total yards and 3 touchdowns in his first major-college action as the Golden Flashes unveiled Lewis’ FlashFAST offense that combines a hair-trigger tempo with a willingness to gamble on fourth down. He threw for 270 yards and ran for 117.
Barrett fired a 24-yard touchdown pass to junior Antwan Dixon and a 28-yard strike to junior Mike Carrigan to stake Kent State (0-1) to a 17-3 halftime lead. The Golden Flashes converted all three of their fourth-down attempts to set up 10 of those first-half points.
Illinois announced early in the game that three returning starters - cornerback Nate Hobbs, safety Bennett Williams and tight end Lou Dorsey - had been suspended indefinitely while three other returning starters were either injured or academically ineligible.
With so many young players filling in, Illinois needed time to figure out how to handle a Kent State squad picked to finish last in the MAC East.
The Illini earned their first break when freshman cornerback Jartavius Martin picked off a deflected Barrett pass near midfield. Four plays later, sophomore running back Ra’Von Bonner churned 8 years for a score. Illinois’ defense then stuffed Kent State on a fourth-and-1, which led to Corbin’s tightrope walk down the left sideline for a 39-yard score and a 17-17 knot with 6:11 left in the third.
Barrett and Illinois sophomore running back Mike Epstein exchanged touchdowns in the third quarter before Corbin delivered the game-winning touchdown in the fourth.
—Field Level Media