Illinois Picks Up Win After Late Scare vs. Ball State

The thwack echoed through the stadium after the ball smacked Jamal Milan's right arm. If he was feeling sore, it was a small price to pay for preserving a win.

Milan blocked Morgan Hagee's 54-yard field goal attempt as time expired, and Illinois opened its second season under coach Lovie Smith with a 24-21 victory over Ball State on Saturday.

"I actually saw it and I heard it," Milan said. "It was pretty low. At first I couldn't believe that I hit it. But at the same time, I could feel it. It was as loud as it can be."

Mike Epstein scored on a 1-yard run with just over two minutes remaining after Mike Dudek returned a punt 52 yards. Isaiah Gay came through with a huge sack near the end.

Chayce Crouch threw for 145 yards and a touchdown. Mike Epstein ran for two TDs.

Illinois — coming off a 3-9 season — blew a nine-point halftime lead and wasted several scoring opportunities down the stretch. But Dudek brought them back into it with a big punt return through the middle and up the right side to the 35 in the closing minutes.

Epstein then plowed in from the 1 with 2:06 left. Crouch converted the 2-point conversion run to make it 24-21.

Ball State drove to the 30 before Gay sacked Riley Neal for a 17-yard loss. The Cardinals had the ball on the 36 with five seconds remaining when they turned to Hagee for the tying attempt.

A lunging Cameron Watkins just missed the block for Illinois, but Milan got it .

"It's a tough look for a field goal kicker," Neal said. "We got all the faith in the world in Morgan Hagee. He's been a good kicker ever since I got here and he'll be back. I don't know how it works when it gets blocked, whose fault it is. But regardless of what it was, Hagee will be good."

Neal passed for 204 yards and a touchdown. James Gilbert ran for 74 yards and a score for Ball State.

Illinois took a 16-7 halftime lead, only to give up long touchdown drives on Ball State's first two possessions of the third quarter.

Malik Dunner ran it in from the 3, capping a 75-yard drive. The Cardinals then went 77 yards, with Gilbert scoring from the 3 to give them a 21-16 lead.

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