In just a few short hours, Illini football fans will finally get what they have been anxiously waiting for: Illinois Football will be back. Fans will once again return to Memorial Stadium with happy, hopeful attitudes, as the Illini football team will once again take the field.

Of course, with the return of Illini football comes a new group of non-conference foes waiting in the corners to face the young, Illini team, and attempt to give the young group of Illini players a cold welcome into the world of college football.

The first opponent the Illini will face as the new season begins comes in the form of Kent State, a Mid-American Conference opponent whose situation arguably resembles that of the Illinois program’s: a rebuild. The Kent State Golden Flashes come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday on the heels of going 2-10 last season, hiring a new coach (the youngest in the FBS in 31-year-old Sean Lewis), and completely changing their defensive scheme.

You can read more about Kent State, their situation coming into their season opener against the Illini, and their key-playmakers in my recent article “Know The Foe” when I detailed everything you need to know about Kent State Football ahead of their game against the Illini.

As stated above, Kent State are in a weird place as a program currently, with swapping their entire defensive system, as well as losing five of their starters on defense.

That being said, the Illini surely can’t overlook the Golden Flashes, as they have a new head coach in Sean Lewis, a Dino Babers product, and one of the most highly-touted young coaches in college football. Lewis brings a new approach to the Kent State team, one that highly prefers speed and athleticism to throw opponents off.

Most analysts have Illinois winning in big fashion over the Kent State team, which will undoubtedly leave a chip on the shoulders of the Kent State team. That being said, in the past the Kent State team has struggled heavily to put up points on offense, despite typically having overall decent offenses.

My prediction may be a little bit closer than what most analysts are saying about this game. That being said, I think Illinois will come out on top, despite likely struggling in the early drives of the game to get the offense flowing. With a young team like Illinois has, under a new offensive system, you’re bound to see some slip-ups.

Golden Flash Player to Watch (Offense): Woody Barret (Sophomore, QB)

Woody Barret comes into the Kent State football depth chart at the quarterback position after transferring in from Auburn after just one year with the program. Even though Kent State isn’t planning on announcing a starting quarterback before gameday on Saturday, it could logically be assumed that we’ll see Barret under center at the start of the game.

That being said, returning sophomore Dustin Crum threw for over 200 yards, and rushed for over 300 yards last season after coming in as a relief quarterback. Barret played in the 2017 season before his transfer at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He racked up 1,294 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Barret is a talented dual-threat quarterback, who will provide a good preview of what this Illinois defense will see in terms of mobile quarterbacks in the upcoming season. Barret also ran for 485 yards in his season at Copiah-Lincoln, and racked up six touchdowns.

Golden Flash Player to Watch (Defense): Matt Bahr (Senior, LB)

Matt Bahr is one of my favorite defensive players on the Kent State defense, and probably overall. Although admittedly junior running back Justin Rankin probably takes the cake in the “favorite Kent State player” category of my award show. (Can we make that a thing?)

Bahr is a redshirt senior coming off of being injured and missing the majority of the season last year. Bahr played in Kent State’s week one matchup against Clemson, but was injured in Week 2 and missed all following games. Bahr’s return is a big deal for the Kent State defense, alongside another player to watch in senior linebacker Jim Jones, who led the team in tackles last year.

Bahr, after joining Kent State as a walk-on, has moved his way up through the ranks, excelling on both special teams and regular defensive coverage. A linebacking core of Jones and Bahr will prove an interesting challenge for the young Illinois offense, led by new transfer quarterback A.J. Bush.

Illini Player to Watch (Offense): A.J. Bush (Senior, QB)

A.J. Bush, after brief stints at multiple schools before finding himself at Illinois as the now-starting QB, has impressed in his time at Illinois thus far. Fans and scouts alike have been impressed by his arm skill. Bush has exhibited great touch over the top, and accuracy when throwing on even the more tough routes.

Though it could be argued that many of the new faces of the Illinois quarterback room have a better skillset than many of the quarterbacks that Illinois has had in the past few years, Bush undoubtedly has a unique skillset. His ability to remain composed in the pocket thus far in practices has been great to watch, and his evasion skills allow him to open up seemingly dead-end plays into chances for big yardage.

Bush came in quickly and took control of the Illinois offense, and even though he hasn’t exactly had too much in-game experience, he is a welcome addition to an Illinois team in need of an offensive leader under center.

Illini Player to Watch (Defense): Del’Shawn Phillips (Junior, ILB)

I’m seeing Del’Shawn Phillips, who came into last year as a four-star JUCO recruit, taking up a lot of space in the middle of the field in an attempt to slow down Kent State’s desire to move the ball quickly.

Kent State comes into their season opener bolstering a new, fast-paced offense. The offense includes a mostly-unknown factor in quarterback Woody Barret, and an exciting player in running back Justin Rankin, along with a few other decent options. The Illini linebacking core is going to have its hands full trying to contain offensive options both in the run game, and in the passing game.

Phillips was second on the team in tackles during Big Ten play, and ranked eighth in the Big Ten in tackles per game as a whole. I’m looking for even more development from the linebacker from Highland Park, Michigan, who also happens to be one of the oldest players on the team. Look for interior defense to be key to stopping Kent State’s breakneck-speed offense.

My Prediction: Illinois 41, Kent State 13

As I said in my season predictions earlier on the site, which you can find in our gallery of articles (shameless plug), I think Illinois takes care of Kent State pretty easily. As Kent State was nearly unanimously voted to finish last in the MAC, I think even a team running a new offense, with a new quarterback under center in Illinois will easily take care of business come Saturday.

As for Kent State, I see good things in their future. There’s a reason Sean Lewis is highly-touted as a young, head coach, and he already brought in one of Kent State’s best recruiting classes for this year. I think Kent State’s ceiling only goes up from this season.

Overall, two teams at different stages of the rebuild come together on Saturday, for an electric atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, but Illinois walks out with the comfortable win, heading towards Western Illinois.

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