Asmussen | Quarterback shift to Rivers has become necessary

Asmussen | Quarterback shift to Rivers has become necessary

MADISON, Wis. — I would never tell Rod Smith what to do. Except for now: change quarterbacks. Right away.

M.J. Rivers was the guy in the second half against Wisconsin. And should be for the rest of the season.

Playing in the snowglobe they call Camp Randall Stadium, Rivers replaced ineffective A.J. Bush Jr. in the second quarter Saturday. Rivers rallied Illinois immediately, giving the ball to Reggie Corbin, who zipped 80 yards to cut the Wisconsin lead to 14-7.

"We were just trying to get back in it and get our guys back in it," Rivers said.

That's production at its finest. One play, 80 yards, scare the bejeebers out of the Badgers.

It was the kind of spark the Illinois coaches hoped Rivers would provide.

Moving forward, the team needs a boost and the guess here is that Rivers is the answer.

At 3-4 and three losses from bowl elimination, what do the Illini have to lose?

This is certainly not a knock on Bush, who led the team to a big win at Rutgers. Bush has the skill set needed to play at a high level. But he has an expiration date at the end of the season. He was a college football version of MLB's rental player (Manny Machado, for example).

Bush filled a need. An experienced quarterback who could help bring along the three freshmen. He played well enough in training camp to earn the job.

But an injury early in the season gave Rivers a chance.

It's time for Rivers to take over. With a nod to the future.

Rivers has been thrown in with the best teams on the Illinois schedule, playing against South Florida, Penn State and now Wisconsin.

In order for him to improve for the long haul, he needs time against Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska. Conference teams that aren't as good as the Nittany Lions and Badgers.

Too soon to tell

Of course, Illinois coach Lovie Smith was asked about the quarterback situation after the Illini's 49-20 loss. No surprise, he deferred.

"You make decisions based on what you think you need to do to give you the best chance to win that game that day," Smith said. "No more than that."

The Smiths (Rod and Lovie) will talk about it this week and come up with a plan. One they will likely keep to themselves until next Saturday in College Park, Md.

No reason to give the Terrapins a heads up. The Smiths want Maryland to prepare for every possibility.

Rivers isn't looking too far ahead. Good plan. The most important opponent is the next one.

He learns each week.

"I've tried to take something away every single game, every single day to get better," he said.

Room to grow

Rivers was far from perfect Saturday. He threw an interception and was sacked three times. He completed 7 of 13 passes for 80 yards.

What did Rivers think about his performance?

"We didn't get the result that we wanted," Rivers said. "We've got to go back and rewatch our film and try to get better."

Rivers hadn't played since the Penn State game on Sept. 21. But he stayed ready, realizing he might get the call at any time.

"You never know," Rivers said. "You are one snap away."

There is a difference in practice for the starter, who gets the bulk of the work with the first unit.

"That's not a big deal," Rivers said. "I prepare like I'm the starter each and every week. I get the same amount of mental reps as AJ does."

Like all freshman quarterbacks, there are times when he looks lost. The more he plays now, the less of those days he will have in the future.

From the moment he arrived on campus, Rivers showed the maturity needed to play quarterback in the Big Ten. His teammates saw it. The media saw it.

"M.J. is an incredibly composed quarterback," offensive guard Nick Allegretti said. "He knows how to run an offense. He knows how to get in there, relax. If something goes wrong, never pointing the finger, always taking it onto himself to do better.

"I love playing for him. I love playing for A.J. Whoever the answer is, the coach will figure it out."

Time is almost up

Rivers has played four games this season. One more and he will miss the opportunity to redshirt.

It shouldn't matter. Illinois can't worry about 2022 Rivers. It needs him on the field in 2018.

Rivers will do whatever the coaches ask him to do.

"It's up to them," he said.

And he won't weigh in on who should be the starting quarterback.

Starter or not, he will be ready.

"I'm just going to keep the same mentality that I always have," Rivers said, "and move forward."

No matter what happens the rest of this season, Allegretti thinks the Illini have hope in the future at quarterback. With the freshman on the team. And others on the way.

"There's going to be a lot of competition in the future," Allegretti said. "I'm really excited for that."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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