Jeremy Werner

NOTEBOOK: Unprecedented win for Illini

Illini overcome unprecedented postponement to defeat Kent State in season opener

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois football experienced a couple unprecedented circumstances in the last eight days.

First, head coach Tim Beckman was dismissed a week before the first game of the season.

Then, that first game was postponed due to severe weather -- the first time an Illinois football game had been postponed for weather.

"It's something I've never seen in my 30 years ... in athletic administration, 15 years as an athletic director," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said on an appearance WDWS Radio on Saturday morning.

Said interim head coach Bill Cubit: "The last 24 hours have been a little bit unique."

The game was scheduled to kick off at 8:12 p.m. CT on Friday but heavy rain and, more importantly, lightning delayed the game's start. The slow-moving storm took about three hours to get through the area.

Thomas met with public safety officials, UI game operations ostaff, Big Ten Conference officials, the game officials, Illinois director of football operations Tim Knox and Kent State coach Paul Haynes and athletic director Joel Nielsen. That group began making plans for a postponement between 8:30-9 p.m. and officially postponed the game at 10:15 p.m.

"A lot goes in to it," Thomas said. "You get to the point where, 'Where is the drop-dead?' as it relates to the start time. Last night, when you looked at the weather, you were probably looking at a 10:30 (p.m.) start. As you know, if a game goes according to plan, you're probably looking at a 1:30 a.m. ending time, which I don't think serves anyone well -- especially our student-athletes. I don't want to put them in that position. That would be our primary concern and our primary focus."

Also, Kent State had no plans to stay in Champaign overnight. So Knox had to find the Golden Flashes big travel party quick accomodations (hotel, food, etc.). The team had to bus to Bloomington -- more than 50 miles away (about an hour drive) -- late Friday and bus back Saturday morning. Kent State footed the bill, but the program received a $600,000 payout for the game.

Big Ten Network initially told Illinois officials that the network could televise the game at 2:30 p.m. But minutes after that decision was communicated to Illinois, BTN told Illinois it could not field a crew to televise the game. With no television broadcast -- the game streamed on and produced by Illinois' in-house video crew -- Illinois had its pick of game time. Knowing fans don't tend to like 11 a.m. kickoffs, Illinois then decided on a 1 p.m. game time. 

UI officials were expecting 35,000 fans on Friday. Saturday's paid attendance was listed at 36,693 but the actual attendance was probably closer to about 15,000.

'Statement' win

Nine days ago, Beckman talked to reporters about leading his team into his fourth season. That never came to fruition as eight days ago he was fired by Thomas, who cited preliminary findings of an external review into abuse allegations as the reasoning.

The players were in shock on that Friday, Aug. 28, eager to play this Friday and composed and focused on Saturday.

"It's been a crazy week, but I'm glad we could cap it like that," senior guard Ted Karras said. "We needed to do something like that. ...We were having fun today. We definitely needed a statement like this, just to get over everything that's happened. Now, it's regular game week, and I'm excited.

Cubit said he enjoyed watching how his players responded to two different sets of unprecedented adversity.

"To see how our kids reacted in such a unique situation, I think it's just really comforting," Cubit said. "And to see what we got here, I think we have the chance to be pretty good. I know we have a lot of things to work on, but they're feeling pretty good in the locker room right now."

Fresh(men) experience

Four true freshmen played for the Illini on Saturday: defensive tackle Jamal Milan, running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and receivers Sam Mays and Desmond Cain. Those four players will not redshirt -- unless they are injured during the season and receive a medical redshirt.

Vaughn had 11 carries (one shy of senior Josh Ferguson) for 43yards and a touchdown. His long run was for 15 yards, though a 19-yard gain on his first rush attempt was called back due to a penalty on Joe Spencer.

Mays caught two passes for 37 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown from redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch. Cain haad one reception for eight yards.

Milan did not register a stat but played several series on the front four.

"They're Big Ten players, that's for sure," Cubit said. "Ke'Shawn I think can be a really good player. I've seen Jamal all the way through camp. I think he's going to be an outstanding player here, way above his years. He's very mature, strong, physical. I really like what he did."

Ward returns

Senior defensive end Jihad Ward was expected to miss the first two games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last month. He started on Saturday.

"I just go to rehab and pray to God that I heal faster", said Ward, who had three tackles, including a tackle for loss. "A lot of people were surprised that I healed back so fast. It felt really good to be back with your boys."

Cubit recruited Ward but said he didn't know many details about Ward's injury until he became head coach last week.

"I wasn't involved in it too much early," Cubit said, "but I think what they said is that he advanced so much. They kind of call him a physical specimen with the things he does. I guess the healing process was one of them."

Salute to fans

Before the game, Illinois players lined up on the north side of the field, took of their helmets and raised their arms to each side of the stadium as a thank-you gesture to the fans.

"We call it 'the salute,'" Cubit said. "I think if people are going to come out and support us, then I think we should go out there and show something to them."

Cubit said he'll continue to try to garner more fan support.

"I'm going to be on the Quad on Friday and introduce myself to those guys (students)," Cubit said. "That's how I can help. I think if people look at what we're trying to do here and the attitude of our student-athletes and the attitude of our coaching staff, I think there's a lot of good things to be accomplished here. Hopefully we turn a corner and moved on. Hopefully, the future is bright for us."

Quick hits

  • Three of the Illini's first half scoring drives were under 10 seconds. Wes Lunt's 34-yard touchdown pass to Marchie Murdock (folllowing Eaton Spence's interception) elapsed six seconds. Lunt's 11-yard touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson (following a Mason Monheim interception) capped a five-second scoring drive. Lunt's 34-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison (following a Taylor Barton interception) finished a seven-second scoring drive.
  • The Illini margin of victory (49 points) was the largest since Illinois beat South Dakota State 56-3 on Sept. 10, 2011.
  • Backup linebacker LaKeith Walls led the team with seven tackles, a career high.
  • Four Illini scored their first touchdowns on Saturday: Murdock, Vaughn, Crouch and Mays.
  • Senior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley returned two punts for more than 35 yards, finishing with an average of 28.3 yards on three punt returns.
  • Junior defensive tackle Rob Bain blocked a field goal near the end of the first half. It was the first blocked field goal since Bentley blocked one in September 2012

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