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.