Freshman quarterback MJ Rivers II stepped in for injured starter AJ Bush Jr. and threw two touchdown passes to spark host Illinois to a 34-14 non-conference victory over Western Illinois on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Rivers entered to start the second quarter and fired both of his scoring strikes to freshman wideout Edwin Carter before halftime to erase Western Illinois’ 7-0 lead and spark a 24-point run for Illinois (2-0). Rivers finished 9 of 16 for 105 yards in his first college action while sophomore running back Mike Epstein rushed eight times for 105 yards.
Senior quarterback Sean McGuire hit 24 of 36 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for Western Illinois (0-2), an FCS school that scored for the first time in its three games against Illinois.
The Leathernecks took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards as McGuire capped the drive by rifling a deep slant to graduate student George Wahee for a 20-yard touchdown.
Illinois’ offense struggled to get going, a trend that could have been prolonged upon losing graduate transfer Bush after a late hit by Western Illinois junior linebacker Tom Rehfeld. Bush was scrambling near his goal line when Rehfeld took his legs out as Bush leaped to complete a pass to junior running back Reggie Corbin.
Bush stayed in for one more play before Rivers took over when the second quarter began.
Rivers’ second possession pulled Illinois into a 7-7 tie with 7:14 left in the first half as he delivered an 18-yard strike on a slant to Carter that doubled as Carter’s first college reception.
Rivers and Carter hooked up again on Illinois’ next drive for a 16-yard touchdown that gave the hosts a 14-7 lead with 2:16 left in the half, but the Illini didn’t celebrate. Carter had to leap to make the catch, and junior defensive back Eric Carrera flipped him with a shot to Carter’s right knee that required him to be helped to the locker room.
Illinois pushed its margin to 17-7 on its opening drive of the second half as senior kicker Chase McLaughlin bombed a career-high 54-yard field goal.
Meanwhile, Illinois’ defense forced the Leathernecks into five consecutive three-and-outs. After the fifth one, sophomore safety Dawson DeGroot roared in and blocked a punt that junior Stanley Green scooped up at the 2 for an easy score and a 24-7 lead with 7:22 left in the third.
Leathernecks sophomore wideout Tony Tate got behind the defense for a 49-yard bomb from McGuire that cut Illinois’ lead to 24-14 with 6:23 to go in the third.
Illinois answered in the fourth quarter with McLaughlin’s 46-yard field goal and Corbin’s 3-yard touchdown run.
—Field Level Media