The Daily Illini

Rivers brings confidence, poise to quarterback position

Photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

M.J. Rivers grew up on football.

From watching his father play to being on the field himself, football was his life.

The freshman quarterback’s dream came true Saturday night against Western Illinois when Rivers received his first collegiate snaps at quarterback. 

Rivers didn’t know prior to having his number called that he was the next man up. Starting quarterback AJ Bush  went down with a hamstring injury at the end of the first quarter, but when Rivers trotted out onto the field, he remained calm. 

“I just stay poised and stay comfortable and give my team the ball,” Rivers said after the game Saturday night.

The decision to put Rivers in the No. 2 spot didn’t happen overnight. Throughout training camp, the battle for playing time behind Bush grew tight, and it wasn’t until Saturday night that those outside the team knew whothe backup QB was.

“Starting off with training camp with guys competing for the starting position, AJ (Bush) won that, but there (was) more competition going on in the other spots,” said Head Coach Lovie Smith. “Matt (Robinson) did some good things during training camp. For a period of time, we thought M.J. (Rivers) should get the next reps. Glad we did because he played well.”

Rivers’ teammates were pleased with his performance postgame, commenting on his ability to comfortably step into the role. “Comfortably” may be an understatement, though; by the end of the game, the true freshman racked up nine completions, 105 passing yards and 36 rushing yards, along with two touchdown throws.

“Having poise and confidence is imperative,”  Smith said. “If you are prepared and love football, a lot of good things happen. He came to the University of Illinois to eventually play football. None of this is shocking.”

While AJ Bush will return to the field when he is fully healthy, when Illinois takes on the University of South Florida this weekend Rivers will be quarterback, and Smith is confident he can handle his position.

“He can throw the ball as much as anything,” Smith said. “He makes good decisions and has a good game plan on the plays,” Smith said. “Situation-wise, you need to be able to deliver the ball to your receivers, and he did that.”

Rivers first found his love for the game watching his father play.

Being family-oriented, he shared similar dreams as his father and jumped at the opportunity to play for Smith. Once he did, his father promised to never miss a game.

The Texas native has traveled for the last two games and will be heading to Soldier Field to watch his son and Illinois take on South Florida.

“He’s been my role model since I was little, and for him to come out and watch me play is a great moment for me,” Rivers said. “Growing up and seeing him play, the love he had for the game, I just fell in love with it really early.”

Marcellus Rivers Sr. spent eight seasons in the NFL. He was on the 2007 New England Patriots team that went undefeated.

The only dream Rivers Sr. was unable to attain was playing for Smith. This was a chance that Rivers refused to miss when he passed on offers from Iowa State and New Mexico.

Now a vital part of the Illinois offense, Rivers is adapting quickly and picking up the pace as he goes.

“We try to get faster with our tempo each and every week so we can go fast and try to tire out the defense and make them play at our game,” Rivers said.

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