Date: September 1st, 2018
Game Time: 12:00 PM ET
Venue: Memorial Stadium, Champaign IL.
Television Network: BTN
Illinois (0-0) vs. Kent State (0-0)
This game marks the start of the 2018 college football season for these two rebuilding programs. Each of these teams is coming off of 2-10 seasons, and both teams struggled on the offensive side of the football last year. However, new additions have been added to both rosters, and the teams are looking to start the season off with a W.
Kent State is coming off a really poor offensive season, as they only averaged 62.8 plays a game last year. Thus, new head coach Sean Lewis, the youngest head coach in the nation, was hired from Syracuse, where he served as the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach. He likes to run an up-tempo offense, but it remains to be seen if he has the players to execute it.
On the defensive side of the ball, things don’t get any better as this unit gave up 35.1 PPG and 408.3 YPG. Despite the relatively poor play, there were players who gained first team All-MAC honors. One was senior linebacker leader Jim Jones, who led his team in tackles (98) and sacks (6) during last season.
For Illinois, their offense can’t be any worse than it was last year, as it averaged 15.4 PPG and was ranked as the worst offense of any Power 5 Conference Team. That figures to change, as Illinois brought in offensive coordinator Rod Smith from the Arizona Wildcats (averaged 41.3 PPG last year) to make amends to their offensive woes.
On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois was very young and gave up 31.5 PPG. Despite that, the Fighting Illini look to be much stronger and experienced this year. The defense returns a large amount of the players who started last year. Expect this unit to regain some of their chemistry and be a tight-knit group.
Why Kent State Can Win
The Golden Flashes have some great talent on their offense. One guy that could stand out is sophomore transfer QB Woody Barrett. Once in the running for the starting gig at Auburn, he is now someone at Kent State who could be a program changer. He’s a 6″2 231 lb. dual threat QB with incredible arm strength. The downside of his game is throwing accuracy, which is still suspect.
Kent State also figures to get solid production from their junior RB Justin Raskin, who led his team in receptions (42) and rushing yards (490) last season. All in all, this offense should be better than it was last season.
Why Illinois Can Win
Illinois is a program that’s rebuilding, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have talent. One guy to watch is fifth year grad-transfer QB AJ Bush. He could be exactly what the Illinois offense needs to galvanize itself this year. He has shown a strong accurate arm to go along with his quick feet, during the offseason. Then you have the sophomore RB Mike Epstein, who put together a solid freshman year (405 total yards and 4 total TDS), despite playing just 5 games and having all sorts of injury problems last season.
Also, this could be a game where the Illini WRs can shine as well. Two names to keep an eye on, are RS senior Mike Dudek and sophomore Ricky Smalling. Dudek had an outstanding freshman campaign (1036 receiving yards; 6 TDS) before sitting out the next two years with injuries. Ricky Smalling had a promising freshman campaign, despite the poor QB play (510 receiving yards; 2 TDS) last season.
What will happen
These two programs last met in 2015, with Illinois coming out on top 52-3. Things have changed since then and this could be a tougher matchup for the Illini.
I expect Kent State to come out firing, trying to get this new season off to a good start. The first quarter should be close, as both teams will be feeling each other out. By halftime, Illinois should have the advantage.
In the second half, Illinois will show why they are a B1G program. The difference of talent between the two programs will make its mark, and the Illini take control. All in all, this should be a comfortable victory for the Fighting Illini and should give them confidence heading into their next match-up.
Illinois 42, Kent State 13
Line: Illinois -16.5 o/u: 55.5