Illini Defense, Epstein Smother Western Kentucky
Illinois' young defense held Western Kentucky's high-powered attack in check Saturday night and freshman running back Mike Epstein rushed for 111 yards on the way to a 20-7 win at Memorial Stadium.
The Illini (2-0) scored their first touchdown of the night on an interception return, and held the Hilltoppers (1-1) to 244 yards of offense. Western Kentucky didn't score until the fourth quarter.
Hilltopper quarterback Mike White averaged 311.6 yards a game last season, but Saturday heavy Illini pressure limited him to 28 of 43 pasing for 238 yards and an interception. He also ran for a score.
Illinois' defense opened the gap on Western Kentucky late in the second quarter with an interception returned for a touchdown.
White, trying to throw form his own end zone, was hit hard by defense end Bobby Roundtree. The ball floated to the 10-yard line where linebacker Julian Jones pulled it down and ran to the end zone untouched. What had been a fragile six-point Illinois edge was suddenly 13-0 just before the half.
Illinois followed that up 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.
Illinois kept White under pressure much of the night. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt senior was sacked twice and hurried four times.
Crouch finished 14 of 25 for 107 yards and an interception for Illinois.
Epstein, getting his first start, carried the ball 21 times.
Western Kentucky: With White at quarterback last season, the Hilltoppers averaged 45.5 points (first in the country), 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.
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.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 16, opening Conference USA play.