ILLINI 20, Western Kentucky 7 | Champaign, Ill.
OK, so the visiting Hilltoppers may not be an exact replica of the 2016 national scoring champion squad that racked up an 11-3 record last season, but they did return QB Mike White, who threw for 4,300 yards and 37 TDs in 2016, and rattled off 31 points in their opener a week before ... and got completely stymied by Hardy Nickerson's unit. Even with star LB Tre Watson getting the boot in the first half for targeting, the Illini dominated White and Co., right up until the final whistle. LB Julian Jones returned a second-quarter INT for six, but Illinois controlled things all along, surrendering just 244 total yards and just the one score, which only came about with WKU picking off Chayce Crouch in Illini territory. The home team's D was physical and, frankly, nasty. Freshman DL Isaiah Gay lived in the Hilltoppers' backfield, harassing White all game and spearheaded an effort that saw the Orange only yield 5 rushing yards.
2. Star in the making?
OC Garrick McGee was quick to point out that freshman RB Mike Epstein's initial outing for the Illini last week may have been nice, but that the hype surrounding the kid may have been a bit premature. Then he went out and made Epstein the starter for this one, and it yielded a 21-carry, 111-yard night for the Florida native. Hey, what can you say? Epstein can really play. It's not so much that he “wows” anyone with his physicality or speed. It's that he possesses a little something-something with both and shows a knack for finding the hole and then hitting it.
3. Crouch is a freakin' dude
His numbers may be meh at best, and he may miss easy throws at times, but, man, the guy is gutsy, athletic and not shy about going for the gusto. His 9-yard TD run in the third quarter that stretched the Illini's advantage to three scores was a perfect example of his machismo mixing with ability to create a winning combo. Dude had no biz getting into the end zone, but decided at about the 6 or 7 that he'd hurdle an oncoming WKU DB around the goal line in order to get the six. Case closed. The deal was done in short order. Awesome.
4. Ironic good sign
The goal is to play well each time out, with that hopefully resulting in victory. Truly good, if not great, teams tend to find ways to come out on top even when they play poorly. With the defensive performance in this one, it'd be hard to label the Illini as having played poorly. But some of the team's bigger stars struggled. Wideout-kick returned Mike Dudek was not his sure-handed self, fellow WR Malik Turner had a key drop, Epstein fumbled one time and Crouch did twice, in addition to throwing that pick for the team's one turnover. Plus, Watson got tossed. Hardly stellar. Yet, Illinois was in control the entire way. It was, gulp, quite impressive.
5. Hail to the Orange ... and Blue and Orange
Time to make it official, Illini, and go with the orange-blue-orange motif for every home game. It's the best look, arguably in all of college football, and, thus far, it has led to a 2-0 start this season. Lotta sharp combos for Illinois courtesy of Nike's redesign for the program back in 2014. But there is a classic feel to the O-B-O at home. Save the fancy schmancy stuff for the road, or neutral-site dates ... like at a bowl game, which this team actually appears ready for claiming this fall. Amazingly.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org