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Illinois’ defense smothers Western Kentucky in 20-7 win

Illinois linebackers Julian Jones (2) and Tre Watson (33) celebrate Jones' interception return for a touchdown Saturday against Western Kentucky in Champaign, Ill. |
Austin Anthony/AP

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ young defense held Western Kentucky’s high-powered attack in check Saturday, and freshman running back Mike Epstein rushed for 111 yards on the way to a 20-7 win.

The Illini (2-0) came into the game as underdogs to a Conference USA team on their home field. But they scored their first touchdown 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 return 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.

“My key was the quarterback the entire play,” Jones said. “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.”

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.

“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.”

Illinois kept White under pressure much of the night. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt senior 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.”

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.

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.