Finally, Mike Dudek was back on the field Saturday.
The guy who had such a fantastic freshman season for the Fighting Illini back in 2014 missed each of the past two seasons with ACL tears. Saturday, he made his return to college football action, and he picked up right where he left off three years ago: as his team's biggest playmaker.
Yes, if it wasn't for Dudek's fourth-quarter punt return, it's likely Illinois would've started Year 2 of the Lovie Smith Era with an embarrassing loss to Ball State.
But instead, Dudek followed up a couple awful Illini miscues — not being able to capitalize on an interception and then throwing an interception themselves — with a 52-yard return of a Ball State punt to set up what ended up as the game-winning touchdown drive.
The Illini trailed 21-16 after an abysmal third quarter in which the Cardinals marched through the Illini defense for a pair of touchdowns. Things didn't get much better until Dudek's punt return, which set up a go-ahead touchdown rush by freshman Mike Epstein — who had himself an impressive debut game, rushing for 54 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 11 carries. Quarterback Chayce Crouch rushed in for a successful two-point conversion, putting the Illini up 24-21.
The Illinois defense, which looked awful much of the afternoon, came up with a couple big plays on Ball State's final drive, including a sack that pushed the Cardinals way back and forced a 54-yard field-goal try, which was blocked as time expired.
The Illini obviously have a lot to improve if they want to compete against Big Ten teams. The defense and offensive line looked particularly poor, and that was against a Ball State team that went 1-7 in the MAC last season.
But Epstein was a bright spot. So too was Dudek, who in addition to that punt return caught the Illini's first touchdown pass in impressive fashion.