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Freshman MJ Rivers leads the Illini to victory over Western Illinois, 34-14

The Illini improve to 2-0 on the year.

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

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — They weren’t pretty, but the Illini are 2-0 and seemed to have found some rhythm.

After scraping by Kent State in Week One, freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers was thrust into action and led the Illini to victory Saturday, taking down Western Illinois 34-14.

The Illini struggled to get much of anything going in the first quarter, allowing Western Illinois to march down the field on multiple possessions. It looked like Illinois fans were set for another ugly first half.

But when quarterback A.J. Bush went down early in the second quarter after a roughing the passer penalty, Rivers stepped in and stepped up.

“MJ did a great job,” senior captain Nick Allegretti said. “He’s done well since day one of camp... We had total confidence in MJ.”

And the Frisco, Texas, native got the Illini offense going with back-to-back touchdown strikes to Edwin Carter, the second of which deserves a SportsCenter Top Ten bid. Rivers’ performance leaves head coach Lovie Smith in a difficult position with another quarterback battle.

“I think MJ did an outstanding job.” Mike Epstein said. “No real drop off there. I think he made some great throws, made some great reads running the RPO game. Great game by MJ.”

The momentum from the second quarter sparked a carry-over on both sides of the ball for the Illini. Blake Hayes continued to do Blake Hayes things, pinning Western within its own redzone on five of his seven punts. Stanley Green capitalized on a Dawson DeGroot blocked punt, taking it to the house. And walk-on Michael Marchese sealed the deal for the Illini, taking an interception all the way to the WIU 3-yard line. Reggie Corbin would run it in for the score two plays later.

Kicker Chase McLaughlin also got in on the action Saturday night. He connected from 54 and 46 yards out.

Entering the third game of the season still undefeated, the Illini found success Saturday, but not many answers — especially at quarterback. Yet, a win’s a win.

“Second week in a row we didn’t start the way we wanted too,” Smith said, “but a lot of good things happened tonight.”

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED

WATCH: Wide receiver Edwin Carter secured two touchdown passes in the second quarter, giving Illinois a 14-7 first-half lead.

SOUND SMART

UP NEXT

The Illini put their undefeated record on the line next Saturday when they travel to take on South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago. Illinois dropped last year’s matchup between the two teams, 47-23.

The USF Bulls sit at 2-0 on the season, hot off a 49-38 win over Georgia Tech.