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Illinois opens with a cathartic blowout victory after rocky offseason

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt threw four touchdown passes Saturday against Kent State. Stephen Haas/AP

The Fighting Illini were due for some good news. After its treacherous offseason was extended for one more night by a lightning delay Friday, everything went Illinois’ way in a cathartic, 52-3 victory Saturday over Kent State.

The defense narrowly missed its first shutout since September 2012. The Golden Flashes managed to kick a field goal in garbage time, but couldn’t find the end zone. Kent State got within a yard of the goal line late in the second quarter, but a false-start penalty took a touchdown off the board and Illinois blocked a field-goal attempt two plays later.

That’s generally the way things went for Illinois in its first game under interim coach Bill Cubit. From fourth-down conversions (2 for 2) to Kent State penalties (11, including two that negated touchdowns), when the Illini needed a break, they got one. That provided a stark contrast to the last six months in Champaign, where Illinois lost star wide receiver Mike Dudek to an ACL tear, was mired in controversy during the summer and the school fired former coach Tim Beckman a week before the season.

Quarterback Wes Lunt helped Illini fans forget about the summer in a hurry. He threw four touchdowns on 11-of-19 passing to help open up a 38-0 lead at halftime.

What the win means for Illinois: A victory cauterizes some open wounds for Illinois, but we’ll need to see how they stand up against stiffer competition before diagnosing their bowl hopes more accurately. The Illini got away with some typical first-game sloppiness, including busted coverages and too many mental penalties.

What the loss means for Kent State: The Flashes head back to Ohio with their tails between their legs. A team that won two games in 2014 wasn’t expected to threaten Big Ten opponents this year, but they’ll have a hard time beating anyone on their schedule if they consistently have to overcome the amount of mistakes they produced Saturday.

How the game was won: Kent State was clearly overmatched, but turnovers quickly eliminated any chance of making this a respectable box score. Three times in the first half the Illini offense scored one play after intercepting Kent State quarterback Colin Reardon. A muffed punt recovered by Illinois in the first quarter provided another short field and a touchdown. Four of the team’s first five scores came off of turnovers. The average starting field position for those drives was the Kent State 27-yard line.

Stat of the game: Illinois scored 45 points on its first 42 plays. Field position and big-chunk plays helped the Illini open up a big lead in an efficient offensive showing. Cubit’s group finished with a modest 342 yards and didn’t top the 300-yard mark until the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. The Illini scored 14 points on short fields in the first four minutes and never looked back.