CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It took a while but new quarterback Wes Lunt delivered a come-from-behind 28-17 win Saturday for Illinois over Youngstown State in a season opener.
Lunt threw three late touchdowns for Illinois. The second was a 15-yarder to running back Josh Ferguson that put Illinois up for good 21-17.
Lunt finished the day 24 of 38 for 285 yards and four touchdowns. He used nine different receivers.
Lunt's highly anticipated debut after his transfer from Oklahoma State started slowly. The Illini had seven first downs by halftime and clung to a 7-6 lead.
The Penguins took a 17-14 lead with 10:57 left in the game on a 2-yard Brian Ruiz touchdown and a 2-point conversion by quarterback Dante Nania.
Ruiz finished with 32 carries for 116 yards and one touchdown. Nania was 11 of 24 for 177 yards.
The game was hardly what Illinois wanted from its opener and the only FCS team on its schedule.
The Illini 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, losing one. And then there were the penalties, seven of them for 55 yards.
And Lunt, who hadn't played a football game for more than a season, was occasionally rusty.
But Illinois' late salvation came on Lunt's arm and two of those touchdowns.
The first one required the kind of luck that might not come along too often.
Leading 9-7 with 4:44 left in the third quarter, Youngstown 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 what looked like a fake. Apparently seeing no opening, the senior punter tried a low, rugby punt that hit a teammate in the back. The ball bounced back toward the goal line, rolling out of bounds at the Youngstown 35.
The Illini had the break they needed.
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 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.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap
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