PREVIEW: Illini vs. Kent State

After tumultuous offseason, Illini football finally hits the field on Friday against Golden Flashes

Kent State (0-0) at Illinois (0-0)

Time: Friday, Sept. 4; 8:12 p.m. CT

TV: Big Ten Network (Eric Collins, Glen Mason, J Leman)

All-time series: First ever meeting between the two teams

Vegas betting line: Illinois (-14.5)

Illini depth chart: SDE Jihad Ward is 'probable'

Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Kent State beat writer Allen Moff

Jeremy Werner's season prediction: Illini will go bowling

Illini center Joe Spencer: "Can we just finally play a game?"

Illini cornerback V'Angelo Bentley: "It was different"

Press clippings: Cubit takes over

Kent State players to watch

1. Colin Reardon, QB: The junior already ranks fourth in career completions (414) at Kent State and sixth in both career pssing yards (4,423) and TD passes (26). But he threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (14) last season. While Reardon is a threat to run (148 yards last season), he's not a game-breaking runner.

2. Ernest Calhoun, WR: Kent State will throw a stable of running backs at the Illini: junior Nick Holley, 6-foot-1, 250-pound senior Trayion Durham  and a pair of freshmen: Myles Washington and Anthony Golden. But Calhoun -- the slot receiver and punt returner -- is one of Kent State's few gamebreakers, so the Illini must limit his touches in space. Illinois should be able to push around Calhoun, if they can stick with him.

3. Nate Holley, S: The first-team All-MAC safety was projected by College Sports Madness to win the 2015 MAC Defensie Player of the Year. As a sophomore last season, he ranked sixth in the nation last year in solo tackles per game (6.8).

4. Jordan Italiano, S: The 5-foot-10 senior safety was named "Smartest Player in College Football" by NFL.com and has 195 career tackles, four interceptions and five forced fumbles.

Keys to the game

Control emotions: After a tumultuous offseason -- culminating in the surprising dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman -- the Illini are ready to just play football. They'll be jacked up to hit someone in another jersey, and maybe take out their frustrations and anger built up during an offseason of distractions. But the Illini can't let that emotion boil over, distract them from their responsibilities and assignments or cause unwise penalties. Also, it's a long day before they play (the Illini attend classes until about 1 p.m. on Friday), so the players must conserve their energy so that it peaks during the game. Playing with emotion can be a great thing for the Illini -- and a terrible thing for Kent State -- but the Illini must channel those emotions positively for the task at hand.

Establish the run: Kent State has a pair of talented safeties. Still, talented Illini quarterback Wes Lunt should fare just fine against Kent State's overmatched defense. But it'd be preferrable for the Illini to subject Lunt to as little risk as possible. The Illini offensive line won't have many advantages over Big Ten teams, but they have a big physial advantage over Kent State's smaller and shorter defensive line. It'd likely be a great day for Illinois if backup running backs Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Henry Enyenihi received a bunch of reps.

Force Kent State to pass: The Golden Flashes passed for about three times as many yards as they rushed for last season. But given Reardon's penchant for passing to the other team, the Illinois defense can put the game away early if it stuffs the run and takes advantage of a few Reardon miscues. Negating the run would also allow the Illini pass rushers to run loose in its pursuit of Reardon.

Pick to click

Dawuane Smoot, junior LEO: Expect a big day from quarterback Wes Lunt, running back Josh Ferguson and the Illini offense. But this season really is a proving grounds for the Illini defense, and it all starts with this game. The Kent State offensive line is experienced but suspect and pass rusher Dawuane Smoot is coming off a great offseason. He has the combination of size (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) and speed that is tough for most MAC offensive lines to combat. If the Illini offense gets a few scores ahead, expect Smoot -- who could move back to his natural LEO position with SDE Jihad Ward returning -- to tee off for a few sacks.

Prediction

History is on the Illini’s side. They have won 17 straight home openers by an average of 24 points. The Golden Flashes went just 2-9 last year (one game was canceled due to inclement weather) and are 6-17 in two years under head coach Paul Haynes, but Kent State returns 17 starters so it may rise from the bottom of the MAC to the middle tier. Still, the Illini are bigger, stronger, faster and have a potentially great passer. With Beckman’s unprecedented dismissal a week before the game, the Golden Flashes may have the opportunity to pounce on a distracted, over-emotional Illini team. Or they may face a focused, determined team ready to take out their frustrations. I’m going with the latter.

Projection: Illinois 34, Kent State 14


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