CHAMPAGIN — When the Illinois football team needed a hero, Michael Marchese stepped into the light.
Perhaps an unlikely hero, Marchese is a walkon sophomore defensive back who needed every bit of his 6-foot-4 frame to leap into the air at the Western Illinois 45-yard line to intercept Leathernecks’ quarterback Sean McGuire in the fourth quarter.
Forty-one yards later, Marchese fell down at the 3-yard line.
Two plays after that Reggie Corbin rumbled into the end zone on a 3-yard run to help the Illini escape out of Memorial Stadium with a 34-14 win over Western Illinois.
"As a walkon, it really doesn't matter to me," Marchese said. "We're all here for the same goal and that's to win football games. On that play, we were playing Cover 4 and we were getting beat on that play earlier in the game. I just read the quarterback and went to get the ball."
For the second consecutive week, the Illini needed to overcome a slow start against a non-power five conference opponent, trailing 7-0 after the first quarter.
This time, the Illini had to muster the comeback without starting quarterback AJ Bush Jr., who exited the game after the first quarter with a right ankle injury.
Next up was M.J. Rivers II, a freshman from Frisco, Texas.
Rivers orchestrated a pair of touchdown-scoring drives in the second quarter to give the Illini a lead. He connected twice with freshman receiver Edwin Carter, who was helped off the field after a gruesome hit to his knee on his second touchdown reception.
“For the second week in a row, we didn’t start exactly the way we wanted to,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. “We picked it up before the half. That second quarter got it rolling a little bit.”
With his dad in attendance, Rivers entered the game in front of an announced 39,252 crowd to throw his first career touchdown pass.
Rivers played three quarters and threw for 105 yards and rushed for 36 more.
"When AJ came out, they called my name and I had to be ready to step up and go in," Rivers said.
The No. 2 spot on the quarterback depth chart was unclear entering Saturday's game, but Smith said Rivers solidified himself as the backup near the end of camp.
Both Rivers and freshman Matt Robinson were warming up on the sidelines before Rivers went in the game.
After allowing Western Illinois (0-2) to score without resistance on the first drive — the Leathernecks traversed 75 yards on six plays — the Illinois defense clamped down, beginning with pressure on the defensive line.
Defensive linemen Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay and Jamal Woods combined for three sacks, and the Illini forced three turnovers: Marchese’s interception, a pick by walkon junior Nolan Bernat and a fumble recovery by Del’Shawn Phillips, which was forced by Kendall Smith.
“This was a game where we needed to get more pressure,” Smith said of the defensive line.
Illinois allowed 66 rushing yards, but Western quarterback Sean McGuire threw for 276 yards on a secondary that was depleted.
Defensive backs Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs remained suspended for the game along with three other Illini.
Tony Adams and Delano Ware did not play because of injuries. Cameron Watkins was ejected for targeting, which will cost him the first half of next week’s game against South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago, Kerby Joseph was ejected and Sydney Brown was helped off the field in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s good for our walkon program,” Smith said. “You come here and you have an opportunity to play.”
Smith said the Illini were down to their fourth or fifth corner, and Tony Adams is getting closer to a return.
Illinois running back Mike Epstein anchored the rushing attack, going for 105 yards on eight carries.
The Illini (2-0) struggled to put Western away, leading by 10 with 7:22 left in the third quarter. On the Leathernecks’ punt attempt, Dawson DeGroot blew past the Western line to block the punt off the foot of Adam Fellner. Stanley Green scooped and scored from the 2-yard line to give Illinois a 17-point lead.
Illinois receiver Ricky Smalling was out with an injury, and Smith is hopefully Smalling can return next week against South Florida.