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Illini get off on rout foot, demolishing Kent State in storm-delayed opener

CHAMPAIGN — Let’s just get the disclaimer out of the way. Although their names sound similar when uttered quickly, and although they both wear all-white road uniforms that require a lot of bleach, Kent State will never be confused with Penn State.

That said, Illinois did a whole bunch of nice things in its storm-delayed season opener, thrashing the Golden Flashes 52-3.

Lightning forced the postponement of the game Friday night. The Illini provided the sparks Saturday.

And after a summer of discontent capped by the firing of coach Tim Beckman on Aug. 28 for allegedly mistreating players, the Illini needed this.

It was a nice way for interim coach Bill Cubit, who was elevated from offensive coordinator, to make his debut.

“I just really enjoy these kids,” Cubit said. “To see them give it everything they’ve got, that was something special. The score was great, but to see how our kids reacted in such a unique situation, that’s what’s rewarding to me. We have a lot of things to work on, but we have a chance to be pretty good.”

Neither coaching changes nor lightning strikes rattled the Illini.

“The past week has been crazy,” junior quarterback Wes Lunt said after throwing four touchdown passes. “To play like this and just play together, it was a complete effort. It was a good day.”

It’s way too early to nominate Cubit for Coach of the Year. But it’s not easy to imagine anyone wresting Coach of the Quarter from him.

After the first 15 minutes, the Illini led 28-0, the first time they’ve scored 28 points in the first quarter in at least 55 years. Lunt threw three of his touchdown passes. And a defense that had seven interceptions last season had two in the first quarter and three in the game.

The postponement from Friday night to Saturday afternoon meant that Illinois, which had been expecting approximately 35,000 fans, attracted only a fraction of that number. The non-attendees missed a show that was heartwarming as well as proficient.

Before the game, Cubit and his players raised their caps and helmets to thank the fans in the west stands, then turned and thanked those in the east stands.

“We call that the Salute,” Cubit said. “If people are going to come out and support us, we should show something to them.”

After the game, the players lingered on the field with friends and family.

One opening-day feel-good win won’t make the turmoil within the Illinois athletic department go away. Beckman has hinted he’ll file a lawsuit to recover $3 million in lost wages that would air dirty laundry. The women’s basketball and soccer teams also are awash in controversy.

But the departure of Beckman, whose lack of public-relations skills made him a liability even before the player-abuse allegations surfaced last spring, already seems to have given the program a lift.

“Coach Cubit would be the first guy to say this is a player-led team,” senior linebacker Mason Monheim said. “That’s when you have the most success. The coaches put us in the right position, and we go out and have fun. All the distractions around us, it’s nothing. We’ve been preparing a long time for this. We’re not going to let anything get us off track.”

Cubit, 61, who was the coach at Western Michigan from 2005 to 2012 before joining Beckman’s staff, has an appreciation for the opportunity he has been given. He’s also off to a good start in being the face of a Big Ten football program.

It’s important not to read too much into this opener, however encouraging. But it beats the alternative.

Follow me on Twitter @Herb Gould.