But mishaps in the secondary and misses in the passing game cost the Red Wolves that lead and spoiled head coach Hugh Freeze's debut Saturday in a 33-15 loss.
"We didn't execute when we had chances to make plays," Freeze said. "We had some guys that were running free that if we throw and we catch it, I think the outcome would be different."
Since 2007, the Red Wolves have beaten Texas A&M and lost by eight points or fewer to Texas, Iowa, Louisville and Indiana.
On Saturday, they were up 8-7 on the Illini with less than three minutes left in the first half, and could have been up by more. Receiver Allen Muse early in the second quarter dropped what might have been a 65-yard touchdown.
"I tell everyone that's a pretty good football team, a lot better than what people thought," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said.
Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin was 20 of 32 for 290 yards, but the gaudiest numbers belonged to Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who had a career-high 267 yards on 16 of 23 passing with two touchdowns.
The game turned on a pair of big plays by Jenkins and Millines, sandwiched around an acrobatic interception. Slips by Arkansas State cornerbacks turned the two completions into long touchdowns.
With 1:24 left in the second quarter, Scheelhaase hit Millines in the left flat. Cornerback Darryl Feemster looked to have Millines wrapped up for a short gain but fell, and the receiver ran 45 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
A field goal set up by a diving interception by Trulon Henry—he scooped a bobbled ball off the body of the sprawled Muse—made the score 17-8 at the half.
On the second play of the third quarter, Scheelhaase hit Jenkins in stride down the right sideline just as cornerback Darron Edwards stumbled. Jenkins raced to the end zone for a 72-yard score.
Jenkins said he and Millines spent the afternoon trying to top each other.
"When he scored, I knew I had to get at least one," the senior said. "Darius is a great receiver, but I had to make sure I keep my stats higher than his in every category."
"They're two really good players," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino added. "Jenkins, especially, he's trying to make the move from good to great. I think you were able to see that today. "
Arkansas State threatened throughout the second quarter, stuffing tailback Jason Ford in the end zone for a safety that put the Red Wolves on the board at 7-2, and using good field position to set up a pair of field goals by different kickers.
Aplin said he was comfortable with the way the Red Wolves moved the ball early. Arkansas State had 107 yards passing at halftime.
"Definitely. We had a bunch of big plays; the (offensive) line did a good job today on a lot of those plays," he said.
Redshirt freshman running back Frankie Jackson had Arkansas State's only touchdown, on a 1-yard run with 3:20 left in the game.
Illinois leaned heavily on Ford early. Sixty-seven of his 86 yards came in the first quarter, when the Illini gave him 10 carries. He also scored twice Saturday.
But he slowed quickly in the heat of the second quarter.
The crowd was announced at 45,154 but appeared much smaller on a day when Memorial Stadium personnel handed out paper fans to those coming through the gates. Forty-five people were treated for heat-related illnesses, with eight taken to local hospitals with what appeared to be minor ailments, Illinois spokesman Kent Brown said.
The game was the first of five straight at home for the Illini, who host South Dakota State next Saturday. Arkansas State next faces Memphis in the Red Wolves' home opener.