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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Western Illinois

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There was a little of each in Saturday night’s game.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini came out slow again in a matchup against what was supposed to be a cupcake game on Saturday night against the Western Illinois Leathernecks. But, just as they did on Sept. 1, the talent and coaching eventually brought the Illini a victory.

Despite the poor start to the game, things progressed a bit quicker than they did against Kent State. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Western Illinois game:

The Good

Mike Epstein

Epstein finally had a nice little breakout game after failing to make much of an impact against Kent State. The sophomore from Broward County had his first 100-yard game of the season, with 105 yards on just 8 carries. Most of these runs were long runs where the only thing keeping him from the end zone was a deep safety.

Here’s a look at one of those runs he broke off for over 20 yards:

It was nice to see Mike have a good day as the Illini move towards more difficult opponents. Hopefully he can have a similar impact next week against South Florida.

MJ Rivers/Edwin Carter

After AJ Bush went out with an injury in the second quarter, our questions about the quarterback depth chart were finally answered: MJ Rivers is the next man up behind AJ Bush.

What surprised me most about Rivers was his poise. He looked very comfortable in the pocket. He is not nearly the runner that Bush is, but his passing looked a bit more on point.

Here’s his first career touchdown pass to fellow freshman Edwin Carter:

Rivers finished 9-of-16 for 105 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, both of which were to Carter. Looks like the QB situation in Champaign might finally be in a better spot for the next several years, with Rivers, Robinson and Taylor on the roster now and Isaiah Williams coming in next year.

Carter deserves a shout here for catching his first two touchdowns of his career and putting the Illini back in the game. You saw that first catch above, and if you saw the second one you know why I am not putting it here in the article.

Special Teams

I don’t know if this actually deserves a spot here, but there were no muffed punts or kickoffs caught out of bounds short of the 10-yard-line, so I am going to call that a small victory for the time being.

Carlos Sandy didn’t look too bad returning punts, and Dawson DeGroot and Stanley Green teamed up for a blocked punt for a TD. These definitely helped the Illini cause.

The Bad

The First Quarter

The first quarter was just.... not good. Just like the Kent State game, the offense looked stiff and the defense soft. The Leathernecks (need I remind anyone this is an FCS team?) took the opening drive 75 yards for an easy score. Luckily, things buckled down after the first quarter.

But this team needs to start better if they want a chance to win four games or more, which I think is the mark they need to hit.

The Secondary

Take this with a grain of salt; the best players in the Illini secondary (Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams) are out on suspension or injury. Kerby Joseph was ejected from the game for mutually throwing punches with a Leatherneck player. Cam Watkins was ejected for a hit to the head on an opposing player. This did not leave a ton of options at corner and safety.

I think once those three guys come back from suspension, Watkins can play a really nice role in the nickel, and Bennett and Green will be solid options at safety. Hobbs and Adams have already shown they can keep up at the Big Ten level, and Jartavius “Quan” Martin looks like a legitimate player. Only time will tell if my dream of these guys sticking together (and being healthy) comes true.

The Ugly

Depth

This is especially apparent in the wide receiving corps and the secondary. Michael Marchese had a nice interception that he almost returned to the house, but aside from that I saw him miss several tackles. With Bennett, Adams and Hobbs out of the secondary and even guys like Kerby Joseph missing time, walk-ons were doing the pass protection. It wasn’t great.

Even Cam Watkins, who has shown the most physicality on defense so far this year aside from Jake Hansen, was ejected for a hit to the head. Unfortunately, that means that he will also miss the first half of the South Florida game.

Injuries

If it wasn’t bad enough that Mike Dudek suffered his third knee injury of his career at Illinois, Ricky Smalling (the next best playmaker on the team) had to sit out with some sort of leg injury. Then Edwin Carter, who helped bring the Illini back into the game, had a miraculous catch in the end zone that resulted in what looked like a very bad knee injury himself.

Let’s just all hope and pray that there aren’t any bad injuries for a while and that Lovie ends those suspensions after two games.

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