Illinois looked improved over Week One, but still a tad rusty and inexperienced in Saturday night’s 34-14 win over the Western Illinois Leathernecks. The Illini again were missing several players due to injury and had even more players get injured in the game and two ejected.
Despite the missing pieces, Illinois found a way to a reasonably comfortable win and stay undefeated against FCS opponents. Most of the areas I critiqued after week one saw improvement, but some other issues did pop up.
Let’s get to these grades.
When you win the turnover battle by three or more, you have a fantastic chance to win. Illinois’ defense had three takeaways (2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery) while the offense committed zero turnovers for the first time since they beat Michigan State at home in 2016. Last year the team wore shirts with (3+) on them stating the goal to grab three or more takeaways each game, and while they didn’t come close to that goal in 2017 — hardly no team in college football did to be fair — they did just that against Western Illinois.
The offense played conservatively and didn’t take any unnecessary risk. MJ Rivers missed some throws but “missed well” in areas of not too great of danger. The only big scare I remember was the kickoff return to start the second half where two players went to catch the kick at the same time.
The Illini secondary had an up-and-down performance. Western Illinois found some easy downfield throws including a 49-yard TD right down the middle of the field on an easy pitch-and-catch. The Leathernecks had 295 passing yards at 7.0 yards per attempt.
But, Illinois did get two interceptions, both by walk-ons (Michael Marchese and Nolan Bernat). They did challenge throws well and held the completion percentage to a respectable 62% — Western pumped up that number with many short dump-off throws into the flat.
Illinois was missing three starters all game, and four for a half — Tony Adams injury, Bennett Williams suspension, Nate Hobbs suspension and Cameron Watkins targeting ejection in the second half. However, Illinois did show weaknesses in the secondary, especially deep, and it will be an area that teams will look to attack Illinois. There were several misscommutions and blown assistments between the defenders.
Maybe getting Adams and Williams back helps this — especially Williams who has much more range than Michael Marchese — and this is a simple case of being forced to play many backups, or perhaps this is an area of weakness that Illinois needs to shore up. It’s likely both.
Edwin Carter: A
Carter had a dream start to his Illini career catching two touchdowns with his first two catches in his first game.
Both plays were similar deep slant routes in the redzone, but sadly on the second one, which was also the more spectacular play, Carter hurt his knee badly.
The Illinois coaching staff has made no official announcement on Carter’s status yet as of this article’s posting, but it appears like Carter will be out for the season with a severe injury, making it the second week Illinois lost a receiver to a season-ending knee injury.
Thankfully, due to the new redshirt rule Carter will automatically get a redshirt this season without needing to apply for a medical redshirt if indeed he misses the rest of 2018. We wish him all the best in his recovery.
MJ Rivers: B-
Lovie Smith told the media after the game that he thought MJ Rivers was “poised” in his debut, and I think that word sums up Rivers’ game well. He wasn’t great, but he didn’t make a turnover and try to do too much. Rod Smith called some simple plays and didn’t have Rivers reading complex progressions. He played within himself and made the throws he could make and read most of his read options correctly.
When he had time and wasn’t pressured Rivers delivered some nice passes and threw two touchdowns on the night. But under pressure he tended to miss high as his mechanics were poor.
Rivers can run, but doesn’t have the fantastic running ability of AJ Bush. He ended the night with 9 rushes for 36 yards (4.0 yards per carry).
For a true freshman coming into the game due to an injury to a starting QB, Rivers did all you could expect, and did enough to take a firm hold of the back-up job and possibly some more playing time as the year progresses.
Offensive Line: C-
The offensive line was better — much better — than it was against Kent State. The QBs didn’t see too much pressure against them, and Illinois only gave up one sack. The second half also saw the line do pretty well at opening holes in the running game and wearing down the defensive line for WIU.
However, at times, particularly early in the game, they were losing the battle at the line of scrimmage against an FCS opponent. This didn’t look anywhere close to what it should look like when a Big Ten offensive line faces an FCS opponent. This group is young, yes, but they aren’t as young as last year and at some point this season we will need to see some improvement.
Del’Shawn Phillips: B
Phillips has taken to the leadership role on the defense quite well in his first few games. He recovered a fumble, marking the second straight game with a takeaway for the senior linebacker. While he didn’t rack up many tackles, he did have two tackles for a loss.
This was another solid game from Phillips. He doesn’t have the ideal speed and quickness for a Lovie Smith linebacker, but he is smart and doesn’t make many mistakes and is a good leader for this young defense.
Defensive Line: B
The defensive line had a very quiet week one, and struggled to make any impact on the game. They turned it around this week and had a solid performance. Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree, and Jamal Woods each had a sack. WIU was held to 66 rushing yards on 3.1 yards per carry.
This wasn’t a dominate game. The pressure wasn’t consistent enough, but with the line missing two key depth pieces with Jamal Milian and Lere Oladipo out that is to be expected.
Illinois was flagged 14 times for 145 yards and had two players ejected — Kerby Joseph (personal foul) and Cameron Watkins (targeting). Watkins will miss the first half of the USF game.
So yeah....stop doing that y’all.
Mike Epstein: B+
Mike Epstein had only nine touches in the game, but still managed to gain 109 yards, thanks to two 38-yard runs. Epstein is the best offensive player on Illinois currently who isn’t injured or suspended, and I’m starting to wonder why he isn’t seeing more carries in the first couple of weeks. I know Rod Smith wants to use all three runners, but come on now. Feed Mike. Mike needs to eat.
Hopefully this is just a case of the team wanting to limit carries early for Epstein coming off a broken foot, but given what we’ve seen from Epstein last season and what he has done so far in the first two games it’s hard for me to understand why he is only getting the third most carries on the team.
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