Champaign, Ill. — For almost three full quarters Saturday, Wes Lunt’s debut at Illinois was anything but what the quarterback wanted.
The Illini had just one touchdown on the board, had managed to hold the ball for barely 10 minutes and, bottom line, trailed FCS school Youngstown State by two points.
But over the final quarter and change, Lunt looked like the quarterback Illinois expected. And with a solid dose of luck, the Illini dodged the kind of loss in their opener that could have seriously damaged their season, coming from behind twice to beat the Penguins 28-17.
“It’s a W, not a pretty W, but definitely we can learn from it,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “As the game progressed, (Lunt) got better and better. He showed his arm strength.”
Three of Lunt’s four touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter. The redshirt sophomore said that, after not playing since his transfer from Oklahoma State following the 2012 season, he had to shake off some rust.
“I was nervous but I was just doing some things that I hadn’t been doing, not setting my feet and just trying to do too much, putting a lot on my plate,” he said.
Lunt’s final stats looked good enough — 24 of 38 for 285 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. He completed passes to nine receivers.
After keeping Illinois’ offense under control for almost 45 minutes, the Penguins wore down, Youngstown linebacker Dubem Nwadiogbu said. The game was played in humid, 80-degree weather and Nwadiogbu said Illinois increased its tempo late in the game.
“We were on fire the first half,” he said. “As the game went on, like the second half, the fourth quarter, we started dying down. We got tired.”
Youngstown dominated possession with its run game, holding the ball for 40:01 to Illinois’ 19:59. Martin Ruiz powered the Penguins offense, carrying the ball 32 times for 116 yards and a touchdown.
But Youngstown settled for field goals on its first three scoring drives, something Penguins coach Eric Wolford, a former Illini assistant coach, gave Illinois credit for.
“They were stout in the red zone,” he said.
The game was hardly what Illinois wanted from its opener.
The defensive line struggled to control the line of scrimmage. The inexperienced group of receivers Lunt will rely on was tightly covered for much of the game. Illinois fumbled the ball three times, though losing only one. And then there were the penalties, seven of them for 55 yards.
To get going, the Illini comeback needed a play that Wolford wishes he had back, the kind of play that he could watch a lot of football and never see again.
With 4:44 left in the third quarter, Youngstown led 9-7 and needed less than a yard for a first down at the 50-yard line. The Penguins lined up to punt but punter Joey Cejudo rolled right on a fake with the option to run or punt. Apparently seeing no opening, the senior tried a low, rugby punt that hit a teammate in the back. The ball bounced back toward the Youngstown goal line, rolling out of bounds at the 35.
Wolford said he went against his own instincts after seeing what he thought might be a weak spot earlier in the game in Illinois’ punt-return team.
“I probably should have went for it on fourth-and-1 there. That’s a mistake on my part,” he said.
Lunt came out throwing, driving Illinois to the 8. From there he spotted freshman receiver Mikey Dudek running wide open in the right rear of the end zone for an easy touchdown, a lead and, finally, some relief.
Illinois was up 14-9 with 13:58 to play, but only briefly.
The Penguins struck back with a 61-yard pass from quarterback Dante Nania to Andrew Williams. That set up a 2-yard touchdown plunge by Ruiz and a 2-point conversion by Nania that gave the Penguins a 17-14 edge.
But Lunt went to work again, driving the Illini down the field before finding Ferguson in the end zone. Up 21-17, Illinois finally had a lead that would stick.