CHAMPAIGN—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.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.