September 15th, 2017. Illinois was set to face off against University of South Florida in prime time on ESPN. The world was about to see the potential that Mike Epstein has.
Entering the game, Epstein had seen great success on the ground and through the air. One-hundred and 65 yards rushing, two catches, two touchdowns. The hype, however, wasn’t there yet. In Weeks One and Two, the Illini had faced off against Ball State and Western Kentucky, so the snaps were limited and stats a bit padded.
Enter Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the site of the Illini’s Week Three matchup with No. 22 USF. The Illini kept the game close through the first half, yet mistakes would inevitably cost the chance for an upset.
With 2:18 to go in the first half, Epstein would roll off a run that would put Illinois back within striking distance, while showing the burst of speed that he showed off at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
Eventually, though, the Illini had no response for the effort Quinton Flowers was showing that night. Even though the Illini were easily out of it, the grit shown by Epstein in the fourth quarter on a one-handed catch while being interfered with is the exact thing Illinois fans could have hoped to see.
Illinois is building something in Champaign, and Epstein may be one of the pieces it builds around over the next few years. In limited action due to injuries, Epstein tallied 346 yards on 57 carries, good for 6.1 yards per attempt, along with four touchdowns.
If Rod Smith plans to implement the kind of offense he ran at Arizona, Epstein may have an even bigger coming out party in 2018.
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