CHAMPAIGN—Illinois found itself on Saturday in the same place it was a week ago: down in the second half to the kind of team Big Ten schools schedule with comfortable wins in mind.And for the second straight week, they looked to quarterback Wes Lunt to bail them out.Lunt, with a big hand from safety Taylor Barton, delivered, turning what would have been an embarrassing loss into a 42-34 win over Western Kentucky. A week earlier Illinois (2-0) had to come from behind to beat Football Championship Subdivision school Youngstown State.
”I asked them in the locker room, `Please don’t do that anymore. I’m getting old, my heart is getting bad,”’ Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. ”We’re not where we want to be by any means, but it was good to see and I was glad for our kids.”
The Hilltoppers (1-1) believed they let a potential win slip through their fingers. They led 17-7 in the second quarter and 24-21 in the third.
”We thought momentum completely swung our way. We feel like this one did get away from us,” said linebacker Nick Holt, who led Western Kentucky with 12 tackles. ”We’ve got to finish in the fourth quarter.”
The undefeated start for Illinois looks good in the standings, and Lunt had a big day with three touchdowns and 456 yards on 35-50 passing.But a week after Youngstown State, the Illini again tip-toed toward disaster.The Hilltoppers opened up that 17-7 lead while Illinois’ offense sputtered.A 95-yard fumble return by Western Kentucky cornerback Wonderful Terry.On the other hand, after failing to create a turnover in two-plus games dating to last season the Illini enjoyed three Saturday. The biggest was Barton’s fourth-quarter interception.The Illini were up 28-27 with less than 11 minutes to play. Western Kentucky had the ball at the Illinois 30-yard line and was moving with ease.Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty looked over the middle and threw deep for a receiver, apparently never seeing Barton waiting between him and his target.Barton pulled down the pick, cut left and was quickly past the last defender for a 77-yard touchdown return and a 35-27 lead.
”I’m just reading the quarterback at that point,” Barton said. ”When I caught it and looked up, I saw there was a crease and I just tried to hit the crease. After that, I just ran as fast as I could.”
The Illini hadn’t returned an interception for a touchdown since September 2012, early in coach Tim Beckman’s first season in Champaign.
”Those are the things that hurt us last year,” Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm said. ”When you talk about turnovers, especially for touchdowns.”
Illinois was also 9-13 on third-down conversions, a frustration noted by Brohm and Holt.After throwing for more than 500 yards against Bowling Green a week earlier, Doughty grabbed the headlines coming into the game. But running back Leon Allen was the hammer Western Kentucky used to pound down the Illini early Saturday.Allen was the big reason the Hilltoppers were able to turn a defensive stand late in the first quarter into a 99-yard touchdown drive that silenced a sparse Memorial Stadium crowd, stunned Illinois and gave Western Kentucky its first lead.After holding Illinois four times inside its own 6-yard line, including the stop on fourth down at the goal line that gave them the ball, the Hilltoppers started pushing their way up field.Allen carried the ball nine times for 36 yards and caught two passes during the 18-play, 5:58 drive. His last carry was the 1-yard touchdown run that, with the extra point, gave Western Kentucky a 10-7 edge.He finished with 24 carries, 118 yards and the touchdown. But he carried the ball just five times for six yards in the second half.
”They ran the ball a little bit more than they had shown on film but once we showed it to the kids, they understood exactly how they were getting attacked,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said.
Doughty was 28 of 48 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and the interception.Illinois wide receiver Justin Hardee caught six balls for 110 yards and one touchdown.The Illini travel to Washington next Saturday for their first road game of the season and first game against a major-conference team. Western Kentucky heads to Middle Tennessee.