Illini rally to beat Kent State 31-24 after sloppy start
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CHAMPAIGN — Illini fans couldn’t be blamed if they turned off their TVs at halftime Saturday. But they would have regretted it.
Down 14 points to unheralded Kent State at halftime, Illinois rallied for a 31-24 victory.
Coach Lovie Smith didn’t blame the fans at Memorial Stadium who were booing at intermission.
‘‘That’s the way it should be,’’ he said. ‘‘We played bad. Fans everywhere in America, if you’re not playing well, they’re going to boo you. How were those same fans at the end? They were pumped up and cheering.’’
Illinois scored three touchdowns in 7½ minutes late in the third quarter and added the game-winner early in the fourth to end their 10-game losing streak. The Illini also prevented what would have been a problematic start to the season.
Far from worrying about that, -Illinois remained calm in the locker room at halftime.
‘‘I just told my team we’re going to win this game,’’ quarterback A.J. Bush said. ‘‘I told them we were killing ourselves [with mistakes]. I was cool. I know if I’m down, my team’s going to be down. I told Coach we were going to win the game.’’
The fifth-year transfer whose previous stops included Nebraska and Virginia Tech passed for 190 yards and ran for 139 in his Illini debut.
What did Smith like about Bush’s performance?
‘‘It’s how he ran the show,’’ Smith said. ‘‘It’s been awhile since A.J. played. He’s a tough guy. He’s mobile. He ran well. He threw some good passes. He protected the ball. I buy into A.J. Bush. He was a quarterback down by 14 points at the half. We needed to come back strong. And he led us back.’’
Reggie Corbin ran for touchdowns of 39 yards and one yard. Ra’Von Bonner (eight yards) and Mike Epstein (five yards) also ran for touchdowns as Illinois showed its running-back-by-committee approach.
‘‘The second half was the entire game for us,’’ Corbin said. ‘‘We had to get adjusted. We have a brand new team.’’
Senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips not only came up with one of the Illini’s two interceptions. He also was a steadying voice in the locker room at halftime.
‘‘I just let them know that we’re better than we played,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘We had a lot of young guys with their heads down. But we knew we were better than that.’’
There were 11 sophomore and two freshman starters on the depth chart, but only eight of the sophomores played. Three of them were among the five players suspended indefinitely before the game for violating team rules.
The suspended starters are strong safety Bennett Williams, cornerback Nate Hobbs and tight end Louis Dorsey. The reserves are defensive tackle Deon Pate and receiver Carmoni Green.
Smith said two other players — offensive lineman Larry Boyd and defensive lineman Verdis Brown — will be academic redshirts. He added that several injured players who didn’t play, notably cornerback Tony Adams, are expected to be back.
Smith declined to say when the suspended players will return but said they will have a chance to play again if they meet certain requirements.
‘‘It’s not a death sentence,’’ he said.
Illinois, which won its first two games last fall against Ball State and Western Kentucky before dropping 10 in a row, will be favored to beat Western Illinois next Saturday before the schedule once again becomes more formidable.
But it will take this win and move on.
‘‘A ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ ’’ Phillips said. ‘‘But we’ve got a lot to work on.’’
‘‘It’s a lot better coming up here after a win than a loss,’’ Smith said. ‘‘The first half was a half that most teams don’t want to have. But sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get going.’’
Follow me on Twitter @Herb Gould and at TMGcollegesports.com.