Youth was served Saturday night at Memorial Stadium in Champaign as Illini true freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II entered the game replacing injured starter A.J. Bush, Jr.
Rivers led Illinois (2-0) on consecutive touchdown drives and rallied his team past Western Illinois 34-14. Rivers tossed a pair of TD passes to fellow freshman Edwin Carter, who left the game with an ugly injury following the second score.
The Leathernecks (0-2) scored on their first drive of the game and held a 7-0 lead halfway through the second quarter. Senior WIU quarterback Sean McGuire connected with receiver George Wahee for a 20-yard touchdown. The points marked Western's first-ever against the Illini, as the Leathernecks' first two meetings with Illinois ended in shutouts.
"We competed and played with extreme effort, and our guys never quit. They fought for four quarters, and that was a great example with what you saw out of our defense tonight," WIU head coach Jared Elliott said afterward. "Our defense was put into some really bad situations, and they continued to fight back. The resiliency, I was extremely impressed with. We can build on that.
"That second quarter, really after that first series where we scored, we really struggled with field position. They were able to flip the field on us several times, and so that limits some of the things that you can do, but we were trying to open it up as quickly as we could. We had to be aggressive, and finally, we were in a situation where we could start taking some shots and move the ball around a little bit. It came down to some miscues that we've got to do a better job of, but I'm proud of how our guys fought for a full 60 minutes."
Special teams breakdown
Special teams turned the game into a slippery slope during the second half.
With the Illini ahead 17-7 in the third quarter, Illinois sophomore Dawson DeGroot broke through the Western punt protection to get a hand on an Adam Fellner punt. The ball was picked up by junior safety Stanley Green and returned for a two-yard touchdown.
In addition, the Illinois defense forced two interceptions and recovered a fumble.
Illinois outrushed Western 238-66. The Illini ran the ball 47 times compared to just 21 for the Leathernecks. Additionally, Illinois ran for a 5.1 average-per-carry, two yards more per attempt than WIU.
The Illini's Mike Epstein led all rushers with 105 yards on only eight carries.
Getting the ball downfield
WIU senior quarterback Sean McGuire completed 24 of his 36 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice and sacked three times.
The encouraging news for Western is that McGuire increased his yards-per-attempt average by 2.3 over last week's disappointing 5.3 average.
In the season-opening loss at Montana State, WIU didn't have a wide receiver catch more than one pass and those completions didn't go more than eight yards down the field. Against Illinois, McGuire completed four passes to wide outs than were double-digit completions, including a 49-yarder to Tony Tate.
George Wahee (#11, pictured above) led Western with six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. Wahee, a transfer from Norfolk State, came on when starter Brandon Gaston was ejected along with Illinois defensive back Kerby Joseph from the game for personal fouls. Wahee had no catches last week against Montana State.
The Frisco Kid
Ironically, Illinois quarterback M.J. Rivers II hails from Frisco, Tex., the annual site of the FCS national championship game.
Rivers completed 9 of 16 passes for 105 yards. Moreover, his two completions to Edwin Carter shifted momentum to Illinois.
5 Key Stats that Stood Out
3 – Turnovers by Western Illinois (Illinois had none)
13.1 –Yards-per-carry average by Illinois' Mike Epstein on eight rushes
15 – Game-high tackle total by WIU linebacker Quentin Moon (11 solo)
17 – Illinois improved its all-time record to 17-0 against FCS opponents.
24 – Combined third-down conversion percentage by the two teams (WIU 3-12; Illinois 3-13)
The Leathernecks will make their home debut Saturday, hosting Montana.