LIVE! Western Illinois

LIVE! Western Illinois

Illinois 34, Western Illinois 14 — FINAL

The way the end of training camp played out, Illinois would likely turn to a true freshman for its backup quarterback.

Sophomore Cam Thomas’ decision to leave the team earlier this week simply assured that as fact.
So when starting quarterback AJ Bush Jr. went down with a leg injury in the first half Saturday night against Western Illinois, Illinois turned to true freshman M.J. Rivers II. The move, while necessary, also paid off for the Illini.

Rivers led Illinois on a pair of scoring drives to take the lead heading into halftime — an advantage the Illini held on to en route to its 34-14 victory against the Leathernecks in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd announced at 39,252.

Bush fell to the Memorial Stadium turf in the second quarter after he was hit below the knees on a quarterback scramble. The graduate transfer quarterback was questionable to return in the second half, but Illinois stuck with the hot hand.

Rivers finished 9-of-16 passing for 105 yards and the two first-half touchdowns to fellow true freshman wide receiver Edwin Carter. The Frisco, Texas, native also rushed nine times for 36 yards in his Illini debut.

Illinois started slow for the second straight week, though. Western Illinois marched 75 yards on six plays — exploiting the Illini’s struggles in stopping the run — and scored on the first drive of the game to take a 7-0 lead. Big carries by Mike Epstein (105 rushing yards) and Reggie Corbin (63 rushing yards) gave the Illinois offense a spark it was missing most of the game. The Illini, statistically, moved the ball better with Rivers at quarterback than they did with Bush early against the Leathernecks.

The Illinois defense provided a little cushion for Rivers, too. A blocked punt by Dawson DeGroot — scooped and scored by Stanley Green Jr. — gave Illinois a 24-7 lead midway through the third quarter.

The Illini tightened up defensively after another slow start before an already thin secondary took more hits with both Kerby Joseph (flagrant personal foul) and Cameron Watkins (targeting) ejected. Watkins will miss the first half of next Saturday afternoon’s game against South Florida at Soldier Field, where the Illini will try to reach 3-0 for the first time since 2011.

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Illinois 34, Western Illinois 14 — 11:22 left in 4th

Sophomore walk-on Michael Marchese got the first start of his career at strong safety with Bennett Williams suspended and Delano Ware not available. He's made the most of his opportunity with three tackles and the interception that led to Reggie Corbin's 3-yard touchdown run and more cushion on the scoreboard for the Illini.

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Illinois 27, Western Illinois 14 — 12:20 left in 4th

Mike Epstein breaking away on another 38-yard run put Illinois in Western Illinois territory with some offensive momentum. Running Epstein into the middle of the WIU defense a couple times killed it. So the Illini settled for a 46-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal instead. Points are points, but that seemed like conservative playcalling where a little more aggression might have led to a touchdown.

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Illinois 24, Western Illinois 14 — 6:23 left in 3rd

A couple of scoring plays to catch up on, as my attention has turned mostly away from the game and to getting a story done with deadline hitting shortly. Anyway, Illinois scored again on a blocked punt, with Dawson DeGroot doing the blocking part and Stanley Green doing the scooping and scoring.

Western Illinois answered with a 49-yard touchdown pass from Sean McGuire to Tony Tate. That came after Illinois cornerback Cameron Watkins was ejected for targeting. He's the second Illini to get tossed, after freshman Kerby Joseph was ejected along with Western Illinois' Brandon Gaston in the first half for matching flagrant personal fouls.

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Illinois 17, Western Illinois 7 — 12:16 left in 3rd

Illinois opted to have Chase McLaughlin pooch punt instead of attempt a 52-yard field goal into a moderate wind in the first half. Wind at his back in the second half? Let it rip. McLaughlin connected on a 54-yarder to set a new career high and tie for the third-longest field goal in program history.

It was another succesful scoring drive for freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II, who would had another touchdown if freshman tight end Daniel Barker hadn't had a sure score slip through his fingers. Rivers was back on the field to start the second half with starter AJ Bush Jr. listed as questionable to return (along with defensive tackle Tymir Oliver).

Not returning was Edwin Carter. That wasn't really a surprise given the hit he took late in the first half on his second touchdown catch.

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Illinois 14, Western Illinois 7 — Halftime

The good news? Illinois isn't trailing at halftime in a game it was favored. The not so good? The Illini are only leading by a single touchdown against an FCS opponent. Those two scores came after starting quarterback AJ Bush Jr. went down with a knee injury, giving way to true freshman M.J. Rivers II.

It will be interesting to see which direction Illinois goes if Bush is available in the second half. The offense has looked better with Rivers.

Meanwhile, #Illini Twitter has had mixed reactions so far ... 

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Illinois 14, Western Illinois 7 — 2:16 left in 2nd

Time to give M.J. Rivers II the keys to the Illinois offense for the long haul? Granted, he's doing it against an FCS team, but the offense is moving the ball better with Rivers than it was doing with AJ Bush Jr. That includes another touchdown pass to Edwin Carter — this time for 16 yards.

Carter took a big hit in midair, got flipped upside down and then landed hard. He had to be helped off the field and to the locker room, and it looked like an injury to his right knee.

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Illinois 7, Western Illinois 7 — 7:14 left in 2nd

AJ Bush Jr. going down with a leg injury meant a freshman quarterback was going to make his Illinois debut. Cam Thomas' decision to leave the team assured that. Of course, the Illini probably would have turned to a freshman anyway with both M.J. Rivers II and Matt Robinson passing Thomas late in training camp.

It was Rivers who got the nod against the Leathernecks, and he was the one to get Illinois on the board with an 18-yard touchdown pass to fellow true freshman Edwin Carter. Maybe that saves the Illini from boos at halftime.

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Western Illinois 7, Illinois 0 — 12:07 left in 1st

Remember what happened last week? When the Illinois defense couldn't stop Kent State in the first half? Let's just say it's deja vu all over again for the Illini. Western Illinois marched 75 yards on six plays in just under 3 minutes for the first touchown of the game. 

The Leathernecks' run game got them to the red zone — no surprise there given Illinois' continuing run defense struggles — and then WIU quarterback Sean McGuire hit wide receiver George Wahee across the middle for a 20-yard touchdown pass. 

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Illinois vs. Western Illinois — 6:30 p.m., BTN

Several changes to Illinois' starters tonight against the Leathernecks even though both the offensive and defensive lines are the same as they were last week against Kent State.

Offensively, both Trenard Davis and Justice Williams are starting at wide receiver in place of Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling. Davis gets the start even though he's listed third on the Illini depth chart. (Remember ... it's a work of fiction).

Defensively, Illinois is shifting from the nickel package it ran almost exclusively against Kent State — at least in the early going against Western Illinois. The Leathernecks run a multiple offense with only some spread looks, so the Illini are going with Dele Harding as a third linebacker instead of freshman Sydney Brown at nickel back. Sophomore wak-on Michael Marchese is also starting at strong safety in place of freshman Delano Ware.

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Illinois vs. Western Illinois — 6:30 p.m., BTN

Now, a new LIVE! Report feature where I try to make sense of the Illinois depth chart provided in the Memorial Stadium press box. Basically, it's a work of fiction, but let's try to find some interesting nuggets.

— The backup quarterback situation still has no clarity even down a quarterback. M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are all listed as possible backups for AJ Bush Jr. In reality? It's a race between Rivers and Robinson.

— Three of the five suspended Illini are all listed as potential starters tonight. Of course, that was also the case last year before it was announced (a minute or two before kickoff) that they were suspended indefinitely. Making things more interesting? Bennett Williams, Nate Hobbs and Lou Dorsey are all listed as one of three possible starters at their respective positions.

— Ricky Smalling is listed as a starter at wide receiver. Look for Justice Williams to get the nod instead after Smalling spent the week in a boot.

— One defensive tackle spot also lists three potential starters. That group includes Jamal Milan, Lere Oladipo and Jamal Woods. Considering Milan and Oladipo did not practice this week (at least in the days there was access), Woods gets the start again.

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Illinois vs. Western Illinois — 6:30 p.m., BTN

The Illinois offense ultimately got on track last week against Kent State. It took a full half of nothing before it happened, but it did happen. The Illini defense did show some improvement as last week's game progressed, but didn't turn things around quite as fully as the offense.

Run defense was a struggle against Kent State. Part of that was Golden Flashes quarterback Woody Barrett running all over creation, though, and that won't be a problem tonight against Western Illinois. Leathernecks quarterback Sean McGuire won't be out of the pocket all that often.

A pocket passer is exactly what the Illini defense might need. Illinois' defensive ends have yet to figure out a balance between trying to get after the quarterback and stopping the run. Too much of the former (with not much in the way of results last week) and not enough of the former.

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Bring your rain gear if you're headed to Memorial Stadium for tonight's Illinois-Western Illinois game. It's nice and dry in the press box and no heavy rain is in the forecast, but things are already wet and will only get wetter as a persistent light rain sticks around all night.

The rain might actually play into Illinois' favor. The Illini offense was already trending run-heavy with new offensive coordinator Rod Smith running the show. Avoiding the unknowns in the passing game throwing a slick ball and relying on a stable of running backs — Ra'Von Bonner, Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein are all listed as a potential starter — along with AJ Bush Jr. tucking and running at quarterback might be the avenue to success tonight.

Illinois was probably going to rely on its running backs a little more against Western Illinois anyway. Mikey Dudek's season-ending knee injury robs the Illini of one of their best athletes in the passing game. Ricky Smalling spending at least the early part of the week in a boot and not practicing lends a little more uncertainty to things. True freshman Carlos Sandy is set to get his first career start in place of Dudek.

No matter which players actually play, Illinois needs to avoid the type of first half it had in Week 1 against Kent State. Not that Western Illinois has the horses to keep up in the long run — the Golden Flashes didn't — but the Illini can't afford another slow start and just truly poor play. That wouldn't endear them to a fan base already a little skeptical.

With kickoff about 90 minutes away (it won't actually be 6:30 p.m. on the dot), catch up on all of our Illini football coverage from this week ...

Former Illini Jeff Weisse was on hand to see his TFL record tied

Talking Points with WIU beat writer Scott Holland

Bob Asmussen's Final Word

Full Illini-Leathernecks breakdown

Gameday Q&A with AJ Bush Jr.

Cam Thomas no longer on UI roster

Suspended Illini putting in work in practice

Illinois offense finally found rhythm