LAWRENCE, Kan. — The sore back that had bothered Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels throughout the fall looked just fine Friday night.
So did his arm and legs.
Making his season debut, Daniels threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns, and Devin Neal ran for 120 yards and another score, sending the Jayhawks past Illinois 34-23 in the first meeting between the Power Five schools since 1968.
“I could tell today when we were doing some walkthrough stuff Jalon felt really good. He was really anxious to play,” Kansas coach Lance Leipold said. “I felt he was ready. I didn't see any apprehension that he was worried about anything.”
Daniel Hishaw added 98 yards rushing and a touchdown, and Lawrence Arnold had five catches for 89 yards, as Daniels and the Jayhawks (2-0) piled up nearly 300 yards of offense in the first half and finished with 543 for the game,
“I feel like everything we game-planned this week,” Daniels said, “we executed it to a ‘T’”
The Illini's Luke Altmyer threw for 202 yards and a touchdown while running for 70 and two more scores, and he showed some moxie by bouncing back from a crushing blow from Kansas defensive lineman Austin Booker to lead a fourth-quarter rally.
The Illini (1-1) trailed 34-7 before Altmyer scored both of his TDs on the ground, and the 2-point conversions got them within 34-23 late in the fourth quarter. But the Illinois quarterback was picked off with 1:59 to go, ending the comeback bid.
“We still had plenty of time, we just had to manage it,” Illini coach Bret Bielema said. “We just haven't been in this moment and it's definitely something we have to correct. I promise you, in the Big Ten, we're going to have these exact scenarios.”
Daniels showed no signs of rust — and how much more dynamic the Kansas offense is with him under center — after he missed last week's opener against Missouri State to rest his ailing back. He led a 10-play, 82-yard TD march the first time he touched the ball, then added two more touchdown drives to send Kansas to a 21-0 lead.
The Illini, meanwhile, were going nowhere: four drives, four punts. And when they finally put together a sustained series, with Altmyer hitting five straight passes and Tip Rieman hauling in a short TD pass, Daniels made them pay for leaving 41 seconds on the clock. He quickly completed a 48-yard pass to set up Hishaw's touchdown run.
“You come down here to the end of the game — you have an 11-point game,” Bielema said, “and you realize you gave them a free touchdown. A free seven points, right before the half. Or it's a one-possession game.”
The Jayhawks extended their lead to 34-7 with a pair of field goals before Illinois finally got a big play. Altmyer escaped the pocket on third-and-18 and found nobody ahead of him, running untouched 72 yards for the score.
The Illini kept their momentum going when Xavier Scott picked off a jump ball in the end zone on the ensuing possession, and Altmyer swiftly led them the other way. After six completions, the Illini quarterback ran it into the end zone himself.
Suddenly, the Jayhawks' lead was down to 34-23 with just over 8 minutes to play.
Illinois got the ball again with about 4 minutes to go, but Altmyer's hot streak finally ended. After he completed a long throw to convert fourth-and-long, the Ole Miss transfer was picked by the Jayhawks' Kwinton Lassiter to put the game away.
“At first glimpse I thought we were an extremely physical football team tonight,” Leipold said. “The film will tell us for sure but I thought we played aggressive. We're playing in a fashion that we're going to need in the Big 12 this year.”
WHAT IS TARGETING
Big Ten referee Larry Smith's crew had a tough time with targeting penalties. They didn't call one after Booker's hit on Altmyer until Bielema demanded the play be reviewed, and only then was the Kansas defensive tackle kicked from the game. The crew later called targeting on the Illini's Tarique Barnes but overturned that one on review, allowing him to remain in the game. A third flag for targeting resulted in Kansas defensive back Cobee Bryant's ejection in the fourth quarter.
Illinois was dominated on the both sides of the ball most of the game, despite coming back in the fourth quarter, and the frustration was evident in the jawing that took place throughout the game; defensive tackle Keith Randolph Jr. was called for unsportsmanlike conduct at one point and tempers continued to flare.
Kansas was strong up front all night, setting the tone for most of the game. Booker and Jereme Robinson each had two sacks and the Jayhawks had six as a team, while the defensive line held Illinois running backs to 75 yards on the ground.
Illinois plays No. 7 Penn State next Saturday.
Kansas visits Nevada next Saturday night.