Rivers answers the call, delivers in Illini debut

Rivers answers the call, delivers in Illini debut

CHAMPAIGN — M.J. Rivers II and Matt Robinson both popped up on the sideline after Illinois starter AJ Bush Jr. took a hard hit on the final play of the first quarter Saturday against Western Illinois.

Both true freshman quarterbacks started warming up. Both were potential replacements after Bush came limping off the field and into the medical tent. But only one was going to take the field as the backup quarterback.

Rivers didn't know that was him until the Illinois coaches sent him out to start the second quarter. He wasn't sure he was the Illini's No. 2 until he was actually the Illini's No. 2. Rivers didn't immediately lead Illinois on a scoring drive, but the Frisco, Texas, native did engineer a 34-14 come-from-behind victory for the Illini.

"We were waiting for whoever's name was called," Rivers said. "I had to step up and be ready to go in. It was just next man up. I knew that my coaches taught me everything that I needed to know to put my team in a better position to win. I just stayed to my read keys and gave my playmakers the ball."

Rivers' statistics weren't overwhelming. He completed 9 of 16 passes for 105 yards. Two of those completions turned the tide of the game, as he connected with fellow true freshman wide receiver Edwin Carter to give Illinois a lead it wouldn't relinquish.

What did stand out — both to Illinois coach Lovie Smith and several of Rivers' teammates — was his poise and composure. That's what made the clear difference in his Illini debut.

"That's the biggest thing," said sophomore running back Mike Epstein, who helped open up the offense for Rivers with 105 yards on just eight carries.

"He wasn't nervous and really took control of the offense," Epstein continued. "You can't tell he was a freshman out there. He made some really nice throws and really nice reads. No drop off. I think he's been doing a great job in practice taking the (No. 2) reps, so when his number was called he was ready."

While Rivers and Robinson weren't sure which of them was next in line after Bush, Smith said it started becoming clear Rivers was the guy as training camp progressed last month. Both had their moments in camp. Robinson clicked in the offense first. Rivers came on strong late.

"Those were the two quarterbacks we thought would get the first shot," Smith said. "We evaluated everything daily. Toward the end of training camp, M.J. pushed ahead a little bit, so he was in that slot if it came to that."

Smith wasn't surprised by the poise Rivers showed even after he was thrown in the deep end. The Illini were trailing FCS Western Illinois when he made his debut.

"You never know with a freshman, but if you've been around M.J. a little bit that's his personality," Smith said. "He's a confident player, and he's a good football player. It's not totally shocking how he came in."

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti liked Rivers' confidence and liked what he was able to do with the Illinois offense. The Illini had more penalty yards (53) than yards of total offense in the first quarter (33). They finished with 376 yards of total offense.

"We want to run tempo, and he was keeping it up," Allegretti said. "Whether we were down or up, he was extremely composed. ... We knew if he was able to go in there composed and relaxed he'd be able to play well. He's got a really good arm and can run the ball. He fits perfectly into the offensive scheme we want to run, so we knew he was a good player and could have success."

Rivers earned his teammates' trust with how he performed during training camp and the last two weeks of practices. That Rivers was able to get the Illini on the board with his first touchdown to Carter on his second ever drive reinforced what the Illini thought they knew about their backup quarterback.

"I think it helped a lot that we saw how great of an athlete he was — how good of a quarterback he is and he's going to be in the future — so the offensive line and the rest of the offense had a ton of confidence in him," Allegretti said. "It was tough to see AJ go down, but the transition was easy."

Rivers evaluated his own performance as "decent" with plenty of room to improve after a film session or two. That was after he was able to get his adrenaline under control as he went from watching Bush from the sideline to the surprise of replacing him.

"I think he did really good — especially considering the circumstances," said senior receiver Sam Mays, who was Rivers' top target with four catches for 42 yards. "Coming in as a freshman, it's definitely a learning process, but at the same time you've just got to go out there and play and let loose.

"It definitely speaks to his character. Back against the wall, you've got to step up. His number was called That's something I harp on personally. If your number is called, you have to step up and make a play."