Illinois looks to start winning trend against Kent State
By TERRY TOWERY
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) When Illinois opens its season at home Saturday against Kent State, a streak will be broken no matter the outcome.
Illinois has lost 10 straight games and hopes to take advantage of a moribund Kent State team picked to finish last in its conference. Both young teams went 2-10 last season, Coach Lovie Smith's second with the Illini.
"We're pumped up," Smith said. "This has been a long time coming. We can't wait to get on the field, especially after last season. We have a different roster, more experience and a different coaching staff. We're ready."
Illinois has won 20 consecutive home openers since 1997, the fourth-longest such streak in the nation, behind only Florida (28), Oklahoma State (22) and Wisconsin (22).
Kent State's Sean Lewis, 32, the youngest head coach in Division I football, begins his first season facing the same issues many past KSU coaches inherited: Lack of size, experience and consistent talent.
This season will be a time of learning for the new Kent State coach. Lewis said he wants to have the program where he wants by the midway point of the 2019 season.
"We won't be to the speed that I want to be until week five, six or seven of year two," he said. "In year two we get into the how and why in respect to what we are asking them to do."
Kent State's starting quarterback in the first game of the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons failed to make it to the end of the season due to injuries. The starting quarterback in 2016 and 2017 did not make it to October. The Golden Flashes' woes are expected to continue. Kent State has not had the same starting quarterback for two straight seasons since 2014 and 2015 (Colin Reardon). That trend will continue for 2018, as sophomore Dustin Crum and junior college transfer Woody Barrett have battled for the starting spot since spring. Lewis plans to announce his starter on Saturday. Illinois named senior transfer AJ Bush as its starter earlier this week. Bush beat out last year's starter and a promising three-star freshman recruit. Both should be ready to step in should Bush falter.
When Lewis began meeting with the team in January, he took away all single-digit jerseys. Only players who meet the highest standards on and off the field would earn a single digit, he said. So far, those players sporting single-digit numbers are linebacker Matt Bahr, defensive backs Elvis Hines and Jamal Parker, running back Will Matthews and outside linebacker Nick Faulkner.
The game will be only the second meeting between Illinois and Kent State. The Illini won that one 52-3 on Sept. 5, 2015.
"We don't know a lot about them," Smith said. "We know they have an up-tempo offense and they use a 3-5 front, which is different than us. But we know what we want to do and we're confident we can get it done."
KEYS TO VICTORY
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith inherited a solid group of running backs and added a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in Bush. The Illinois offensive line remains a challenge for the team this season, but the front five returns experience and should be stronger and more physical. Against Kent State, Illinois needs to take control with the ground game to set the tone for what it can accomplish later in the season.
The Golden Flashes must move the ball early and often. Lewis runs a breakneck-paced offense. Kent State is going to try to use tempo to confuse and wear out the Illini. Illinois should be ready, since Rod Smith does the same thing in practice.
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Updated August 31, 2018