CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois had had a slim six-point lead in the second quarter on Western Kentucky, but the Illini defense had the Hilltoppers backed up to their own 2-yard line and on their heels.
The Hilltoppers decided to throw out of the end zone and, as soon as quarterback Mike White had the ball he had a wave of blue jerseys in his face.
He threw for the sideline, White later explained, but never got his feet set.
Parked at the 10-yard line, Illini linebacker Julian Jones never looked away from White.
“I had my eyes on him the entire play, so as soon as the ball was in the air I knew the ball was coming right to me,” Jones said.
Jones grabbed the ball and ran untouched into the end zone, and the Illini had a 13-0 lead, well on their way to a 20-7 win.
“Bad football play,” White summed up.
The Illini (2-0) came into the game as underdogs on their home field to a Conference USA team, no doubt in large part due to Western Kentucky’s high-powered offense. The Hilltoppers (1-1), with White at quarterback, averaged 45.5 points a game last season, best in the country.
Illinois’ young defense, including three freshmen starters, held the Hilltoppers to 244 total yards. Western Kentucky didn’t score until the fourth quarter.
The Illini offense was limited, but freshman running back Mike Epstein rushed for 111 yards.
White averaged 311.6 yards a game last season, but Saturday heavy Illini pressure limited him to 28 of 43 passing for 238 yards and an interception. He also ran for a score.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt senior was under pressure much of the night. He was sacked twice and hurried four times.
“They put their players on one-on-one islands and they won those battles,” White said. “That comes with the territory being a quarterback, not everything is going to be perfect every play.”
Illinois followed up the pick-six with a crushing 84-yard drive to open the second half. Quarterback Chayce Crouch capped it with a nine-yard run, finishing with a leap into the end zone for a 20-0 lead.
“We didn’t start off offensively the way we wanted to start off,” first-year coach Mike Sanford said. “Whatever the favorite, whoever was, doesn’t mean anything to us. What means something to us is we fully believed we were going to come out of Champaign with a victory and we did not.”
Crouch finished 14 of 25 for 107 yards and an interception for Illinois.
Epstein, getting his first start, carried the ball 21 times.
“He started and again, you want to see young guys take that kind of step their second time out. Just the tip of the iceberg a little bit too,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said.
Western Kentucky: With White at quarterback last season, the Hilltoppers averaged 523.1 total yards (fifth in the country) and 336.8 passing yards (fifth in the country) a game. Saturday, Illinois’ young defense kept him under control. White averaged just 8.5 per completion.
Illinois: The Illini defense is young, with three true freshmen starting Saturday. But true to form for a Lovie Smith team, against the Hilltoppers it set the tone – and won the game. The second quarter touchdown by Jones gave Illinois a two-touchdown lead, which the defense made stand up.
Given limitations of Illinois’ offense, particularly Crouch’s inability to consistently throw the ball down field, the team’s defense is likely to be called on to keep the Illini in games all season, and particularly as they head into the Big Ten, starting Sept. 29 against Nebraska.
“Our guys stepped up to the plate. Defensively we knew, (Western Kentucky has) a very good quarterback, good skill guys. It would be a big challenge for our young defensive line and our young secondary, but they really stepped to the table,” Smith said.
EPSTEIN’S SOLID START
Illinois’ most reliable offensive weapon was Epstein. He quietly topped 100 yards for the first time in his college career after carrying 11 times for 54 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener.
When the Illini badly need to move the ball, they turned to Epstein.
Western Kentucky’s first score made it a 20-7 game, and Illinois took over on its own 14 with 11:30 to play in the game. The first two carries went to Epstein and he churned out 10 yards for a first down that kept the clock moving and started a drive that chewed up 7:04. It ended without points but left the Hilltoppers with less than five minutes to play and deep in their own territory.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 16, opening Conference USA play.
Illinois: The Illini are scheduled to take on South Florida at 7 p.m. ET on Friday in Tampa, but that could change, depending on the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Illini sports information director Kent Brown said. The schools are scheduled to play home-and-home games this season and next and have talked about the possibility of moving Friday’s game to Champaign, if need be. Brown stressed that those discussions are preliminary. South Florida canceled this week’s game with Connecticut ahead of the hurricane.