The Fighting Illini opened their 2017 campaign Saturday afternoon with a 24-21 victory over Ball State Cardinals in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois. The Illini are coming off a 3-9 season in 2016 and go into this season with over 50 freshmen on the roster under second-year coach Lovie Smith. The expectations are not very high this year considering how young the team it, but the Illini were favored slightly by ESPN in this game against Ball State.

Quick game recap

Starting at the QB position for the Illini was junior Chayce Crouch, and he got the home team on the board first with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mike Dudek and made it 6-0 early after missing a two-point conversion.

This came after an Illini fumble recovery on the Cardinals' first drive of the game. Ball State responded with a touchdown of their own on a pass from QB Riley Neal to TE Nolan Givan and added an extra point to make it 7-6 near the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter the Illini took the lead back on a touchdown run from freshman RB Mike Epstein. The Illini drove down the field again in the final minute which ended in a 40-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin -- with a score of 16-7 at halftime.

Ball State came out firing on all cylinders with a long drive to open the second half, resulting in a touchdown by RB Malik Dunner on a 15-play drive that lasted 5:19. The Illini went three and out and the Cardinals put together a 13-play drive to take a 21-16 lead on a James Gilbert run into the endzone.

The Illini were trailing by the same score with under 5:00 to go after missing a field goal earlier, and they drove their way to take the lead on another Mike Epstein touchdown run with 2:06 left. Ball State had the ball on fourth down with one last play, and ended up having a 54-yard field goal attempt blocked by Jamal Milan to seal the win for Illinois.

Standout players

Arguably the biggest player to make an impact on the game for the Illini was the freshman Mike Epstein. On 11 carries he rushed for 54 yards and scored two big touchdowns -- including the game winner. Epstein is from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and went to St. Thomas Aquinas high school. He will be a key part of the Illini offense moving forward.

Chayce Crouch threw a touchdown and an interception, going 10-19 with 145 passing yards. Overall the offense only put together 216 total yards but they scored when they needed to in order to get the victory.

On defense the standout player was LB Tre Watson who recorded an interception and fumble recovery in the game. While the defense had its struggles today, particularly with the run, the junior Watson came up big with those takeaways.

The Illini will take on Western Kentucky next Saturday at 7 PM CDT in Champagne-Urbana.