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Illinois football vs. Kent State: Time, TV schedule, game preview, score

Fighting Illini host Golden Flashes in season opener

The Illinois Fighting Illini celebrate an interception by teammate Cameron Watkins #31 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the third quarter of the game on October 21, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers defeated the Fighting Illini 24-17. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Two teams looking to bounce back from ugly two-win seasons face off when Illinois hosts Kent State on Saturday afternoon in a non-conference season opener for both squads.

Coach Lovie Smith is in his third year at the helm of the Illini, and he’ll look for his first winning season at the school with a team that has only eight seniors -- the least of any team in FBS.

TV: Noon ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Illinois -16.5

One of those seniors will start under center as Smith named AJ Bush Jr. as his quarterback days before the opener. Another player in his final season at Illinois, wide receiver Mike Dudek, is hoping to recapture the form that he had as a freshman (76 catches, 1,038 yards) before injuries limited him to seven games over the last three seasons.

Smith will need to find some defense to keep the Illini in games after they allowed 31.5 points last season, and Smith is looking at another senior, linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips (85 tackles), to lead the way.

Sean Lewis, the youngest head coach in FBS at 32, brings the fast-paced offense he ran as offensive coordinator at Syracuse to his first year with the Flashes, promising a much more uptempo attack than years past.

ABOUT KENT STATE (2017: 2-10)

Lewis is trying to bring a new attitude to Kent State, looking to ignite the program with his offense that topped FBS in snaps per game with 87.8 at Syracuse a season ago.

The Golden Flashes didn't know who their starting quarterback would be days before the opener -- sophomores Woody Barrett and Dustin Crum were the top candidates -- but whoever starts at each of the offensive positions on the field had better be ready to play, because Lewis doesn't like substitutions that slow down his offense.

Kent State scored only 12.8 points per game a season ago -- second-fewest in FCS to UTEP (11.8), including five contests with three points or fewer, but Lewis is banking on that changing quite a bit in 2018.

ABOUT ILLINOIS (2017: 2-10)

Though he's a senior, Bush Jr. doesn't have a lot of playing experience at the collegiate level, having played at three other schools before making his way as a graduate transfer to Champaign for his final campaign.

Bush spent two years at Nebraska without seeing the field before spending a season at Iowa Western, which led to a season at Virginia Tech, where he played in five games and attempted 11 passes.

Smith likes Bush's experience, though, saying that he trusts the dual-threat signal caller in his first collegiate start because he's learned how to handle himself throughout his time in college, even if he hasn't spent a lot of it on the field.

EXTRA POINTS

1. Illinois WR Ricky Smalling ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 16.5 yards per catch as a freshman, finishing with a team-high 510 receiving yards.

2. Kent State LB Jim Jones leads the team's defense, coming off a junior season in which he paced the Flashes with 98 tackles and six sacks.

3. Illinois has won 20 consecutive home openers, the fourth-longest active streak in the nation.

PREDICTION: Illinois 35, Kent State 21

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