Illinois emerged triumphant on its Saturday evening primetime matchup with Western Illinois, but some of what we saw could have major effects for the rest of the season.
MJ Rivers: Welcome to the Show
True freshman quarterback MJ Rivers was forced to lead the Illini during the second quarter after starter AJ Bush limped to the sideline with what appeared to be a minor injury. Rivers showed as much poise in the pocket as you could expect from a kid in his second college football game, as he went 9-for-16 for 105 yards passing with two touchdowns. He also flashed mobility, accounting for 40 yards on the ground and finishing as Illinois’ third leading rusher.
MJ Rivers to Edwin Carter Touchdown pic.twitter.com/y9m2IC0Em7— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 9, 2018
Although the talent level of the Leathernecks must be taken into account, I was encouraged to see Rivers emerge as a capable backup to Bush in the event Illinois’ starter is injured again. Running quarterbacks are especially susceptible to injury, and it is crucial to have depth at the position. I was pleased by what I saw out of Rivers, and look forward to seeing what he can do in the games and seasons to come.
Depth Concerns in the Secondary
The Illini used a number of walk-on defensive backs during the game as depth at the cornerback and safety positions dwindled. Freshman safety Kerby Joseph was ejected in the second quarter for a personal foul, then junior starting cornerback Cam Watkins was ejected for targeting in the third quarter. Freshman DB Sydney Brown left the game with an injury as well. Former Freshman All-American safety Bennett Williams and cornerback Nate Hobbs are still serving their suspensions, and injuries sidelined sophomore cornerback Tony Adams and freshman safety Delano Ware. As a result, Lovie Smith leaned on walk-ons Michael Marchese, Nolan Bernat, and Christian Bobak in the defensive backfield.
Marchese and Bernat both picked off Western Illinois quarterback Sean McGuire, with Marchese returning the ball within the Leathernecks’ 5-yard line.
The play of the walk-ons was encouraging, and Lovie used their performances to sell the Illini walk-on program following the game. Though the walk-ons showed promise against an FCS opponent, the Illini will need the rest of the secondary back as soon as possible for USF and conference play.
Last night’s game was eerily reminiscent of the 2017 season in terms of the massive number of penalty yards that the Illini incurred. Illinois drew a total of 14 penalties for 153 yards. One particularly disastrous play saw two Illinois defenders each draw 15-yard penalties, resulting in a 30-yard gain for the Leathernecks.
The sloppy play was no doubt due in part to the overall youth of the roster, but winning games against conference opponents will be insurmountably difficult unless the number of penalties is cut substantially.
An Identity in the Running Game
Sophomore running back Mike Epstein showed that he is leaps and bounds above the other players at his position. Epstein gained 105 yards on 8 carries, a number of which were spectacular breakaways.
#illini Lovie: Trying to get all three running backs reps. Mike Epstein made the most of his.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) September 9, 2018
Reggie Corbin was the next leading rusher with 67 yards on 15 carries, while starting running back Ra’Von Bonner finished with 22 yards on 7 carries. The offensive line must still improve drastically, as too often it allowed the Western Illinois defensive front to dictate the line of scrimmage in the run game.
QB MJ Rivers in his first play of the game throws a block for Reggie Corbin pic.twitter.com/pvTIpr4AZR— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 9, 2018
It’s tough to understate the play of Blake Hayes, who repeatedly punted Western Illinois into its own endzone and set up special teams scoring opportunities, which Dawson DeGroot and Stanley Green took advantage of for a punt block touchdown late in the game. Chase McLaughlin was perfect on the evening, nailing field goals of 54 (new career long) and 46 yards. Though the coverage teams continue to flounder, the punter and kicker positions are in great hands.
Next week the Illini look to take on the Bulls of USF at Soldier Field in Chicago. It should be a tough game, as USF traveled to Georgia Tech yesterday and defeated the Yellow Jackets, 49-38.
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