CHAMPAIGN — The thwack echoed through the stadium after the ball smacked Jamal Milan’s right arm. If he was feeling sore, it was a small price to pay for preserving a win.
Milan blocked Morgan Hagee’s 54-yard field goal attempt as time expired, and Illinois opened its second season under coach Lovie Smith with a 24-21 victory over Ball State on Saturday.
“I actually saw it and I heard it,” Milan said. “It was pretty low. At first I couldn’t believe that I hit it. But at the same time, I could feel it. It was as loud as it can be.”
Mike Epstein scored on a 1-yard run with just over two minutes remaining after Mike Dudek returned a punt 52 yards. Isaiah Gay came through with a huge sack near the end.
Chayce Crouch threw for 145 yards and a touchdown. Mike Epstein ran for two TDs.
Illinois — coming off a 3-9 season — blew a nine-point halftime lead and wasted several scoring opportunities down the stretch. But Dudek brought them back into it with a big punt return through the middle and up the right side to the 35 in the closing minutes.
Epstein then plowed in from the 1 with 2:06 left. Crouch converted the 2-point conversion run to make it 24-21.
Ball State drove to the 30 before Gay sacked Riley Neal for a 17-yard loss. The Cardinals had the ball on the 36 with five seconds remaining when they turned to Hagee for the tying attempt.
A lunging Cameron Watkins just missed the block for Illinois, but Milan got it .
“It’s a tough look for a field goal kicker,” Neal said. “We got all the faith in the world in Morgan Hagee. He’s been a good kicker ever since I got here and he’ll be back. I don’t know how it works when it gets blocked, whose fault it is. But regardless of what it was, Hagee will be good.”
Neal passed for 204 yards and a touchdown. James Gilbert ran for 74 yards and a score for Ball State.
Illinois took a 16-7 halftime lead, only to give up long touchdown drives on Ball State’s first two possessions of the third quarter.
Malik Dunner ran it in from the 3, capping a 75-yard drive. The Cardinals then went 77 yards, with Gilbert scoring from the 3 to give them a 21-16 lead.
“We got a lot of young guys out on the field today,” Crouch said. “I think some of our inexperience showed at times. But they’ll learn from it.”
Besides the big punt return, Dudek caught two passes for 47 yards and a touchdown . And when the game ended, he got a little choked up.
After all, Dudek hadn’t played since a standout freshman season in 2014. He sat out the past two seasons because he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice.
“I was thinking about where I’ve been,” he said. “I was thinking about all of my teammates and coaches that had my back.”
Ball State: It was a rough finish for the Cardinals, who looked like they might pull this one out. Instead, they opened their second season under Mike Neu with a loss. And Gilbert was helped off the field after his TD run.
Illinois: The Illini hung on to win their 20th straight home opener — the nation’s fourth longest streak. But their young players are going to have to adjust quickly. The Illini had 12 true freshman play, and three started on defense for the first time in a season opener since 1980.
Ball State: The Cardinals open at home next week against UAB, which did not field a team the past two years. Ball State has won seven straight home openers.
Illinois: The schedule isn’t getting any easier, with Western Kentucky — an 11-game winner last season — visiting next week. The Illini then go to South Florida on Sept. 15, followed by a home game against Nebraska on Sept. 29 and a trip to Iowa on Oct. 7.