Grading Illinois’ win over Western Illinois


Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback M.J. Rivers II (8) hands the ball off to running back Reggie Corbin (2) during the game against Western Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Another game, another quarterback

M.J. Rivers stepped in and stepped up to help secure the win over Western Illinois.

The freshman entered the game to replace quarterback AJ Bush after the grad transfer suffered a game-ending injury.

As Bush was cared for in the medical tent, Rivers  — cool, calm and collected —    threw to fellow freshman Edwin Carter for 18 and 16 yards to give the Illini the lead. The 14-7 lead was one that was maintained for the remainder of the game.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is poise,” wide receiver Sam Mays said. “He’s been the same way — even-keeled —  all throughout camp and throughout all of (the) practices so far.”

Though Rivers came off calm and made quite intelligent plays, the freshman still had the expected first-game jitters, especially having been put in on short notice.

“I was just telling myself,I got this, I know everything, just keep to my reads,’ Rivers said.

The quarterback threw for a total of 109 yards, completing nine of 16 attempts while also rushing for 40 yards in nine attempts.

Injuries and ejections

News of Mike Dudek’s season-ending injury hit only a week ago, but the senior was in what appeared to be good spirits on the sidelines, offering encouraging words to his teammates throughout the game.

Ricky Smalling lost his 11-game start streak due to injury.

Head coach Lovie Smith suggested Smalling and Tony Adams are quite close to full recovery and may make an appearance in next week’s South Florida game.

Freshman Edwin Carter had quite the impressive breakout game with two touchdowns totaling 34 receiving yards. Unfortunately, after making a clutch catch in the end zone, he suffered what appeared to be a serious right-knee injury.

Starting quarterback AJ Bush, another player Smith refused to speak on, wasn’t able to finish the game. He left the game early in the second quarter, completing five of his seven pass attempts and running five times for a combined three yards.

Along with the injuries, two Illini players were ejected. Freshman safety Kerby Joseph was ejected alongside a Western player for unsportsmanlike conduct on the field.

Cam Watkins was ejected in the second half for targeting. The junior will have to sit out the first half of next week’s South Florida game. Prior to his ejection, Watkins was leading the team with seven tackles, just three short of the career high he set last week against Kent State.

From walk-on legends to special team standouts

Micheal Marchese had his first career start and quickly became a pivotal part of the Illini defense. The junior walk-on had his first career interception and return for 41 yards, just three yards short of the end zone. Nolan Bernat, another walk-on, also had his first career interception late in the fourth quarter to finalize the 34-14 win.

Special teams came out as the ultimate saving grace in the night’s win, however.

Chase McLaughlin continued on brand with a career-best 54-yard field goal early in the third quarter to boost Illinois to a 17-7 lead. McLaughlin also had a 46-yard kick in the fourth quarter and had a perfect night on all three extra points.

Punter Blake Hayes also had quite the night with seven punts for 287 total yards.

“Last week, I wouldn’t have necessarily said that our special teams help us out an awful lot,” Smith said. “(It was) the complete opposite tonight.”


Offense: B

A win, though a sloppy one, is a win. Did Illinois have some powerful plays that eventually turned the game around? Yes. But that doesn’t excuse the number of mistakes made through the game. Before being relieved by Rivers, Bush completed five of his seven attempted passes. Though Rivers was the eventual saving grace for the Illini, the freshman only completed nine of his 16 passes. It took a while for Sam Mays and Rivers to connect. Aside from Edwin Carter, receivers were rarely able to grab passes efficiently. Rivers remained poised in the pocket, which is likely why the team pulled off the win. The offensive line created quite large holes sporadically to allow running backs through for large gains as well. Running back Mike Epstein all but saved the offense from a lower grade, averaging 13.1 yards per attempts, totaling 105 for the game.

Special Teams: A-

According to Lovie Smith the special teams helped the team out quite a bit, enough to claim the starring role of the night. Chase McLaughlin made 100 percent of his field goal attempts along with all of the extra point attempts. Chase McLaughlin nailed 54-yard and 46-yard field goals. Punter Blake Hayes had seven punts for 287 yards of the night. On the other end of the ball, Dawson DeGroot blocked a punt in the third quarter with Illinios up 17-7.

Defense: C

The defense came out quite slow and allowed Western to score right away. The traditional offense that the Illini thought they were prepared for was full of small surprises that seemed to catch the defense off guard. They turned it around and responded with some powerful plays. Michael Marchese and Nolan Bernat each had their first career interceptions. Isaiah Gay sacked the quarterback with a loss of nine yards. Cam Watkins, before being ejected from the game, leads the team in total tackles with seven.


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