By: Mariah Guzman
After a disappointing, 41-14 loss against Minnesota last Saturday, Illinois football (0-3) had one good thing going for them: running back Mike Epstein.
The talented back ended the night with 11 carries for 108 yards — passing the 100 yard rushing mark for the first time since 2018, the fourth time in his career that he’s reached that mark.
“I had a feeling I was close but I didn’t know exactly,” Epstein said.
The senior has dealt with season-ending injuries since his freshman year, spending most of his college career trying to get healthy and stay healthy. Even with injury setbacks, Epstein — in sixteen career games played — has managed eight touchdowns and 1,009 yards rushing.
But regardless of how good it felt to have a career-long 63-yard run and a touchdown on Saturday, Epstein’s standout performance was overshadowed by the Illini’s overall, poor performance.
“It definitely feels good, but not much feels good after this game and individual things are good but we’re all just here trying to win and today was a bad performance on our part so we all need to do better,” Epstein said.
Within two plays, the Illini went from second and goal on the ten yard line, to third and goal from the 48 yard-line, a loss of 23-yards.
“We just gotta play error free football,” Epstein said. “We had a lot of flags today. A lot of penalties that killed us and I think we were on the ten yard line and somehow we ended up at the 50 so that’s not a good way to win a football game. We need to be better. Just play error free football and be fundamentally sound. Finish drives. I think that’s big for us if we’re getting down to the ten yard line, we drove the ball all the way downfield we need to finish that drive and get points on the board.”
Head coach Lovie Smith agreed that not being able to keep drives flowing down the field hurt them.
“I mean there are times when we move the ball a little bit but you have to sustain drives,” Smith said. “And we would have a big run and get in position and then we start going back the other direction but we have a commitment to the run and we’ll need to get it going even more. We can’t get in a position where we become a team that has to pass the ball. That’s why we can’t get in a 14-0 hole again. We gotta come out strong.”
To top off the night, Illinois had a total of 12 penalties for 120 yards. This year, the team is averaging 8 penalties a game; last year the Illini averaged 6.7 penalties a game— 93rd in the country.
‘We’re so much better than this,” Epstein said. “We’re 0 and three right now and that’s our record. There’s no hiding that. We’re just a [much] better team than what we’ve been putting out and it’s just frustrating because we put a lot of work in to have this team. You know it’s just disappointing when we’re excited about this year and we’re off to a slow start. But there’s more football to be played like coach Smith has said and we need to turn this thing around.”
Looking forward to the rest of the season, Epstein is hopeful that his team can get to a better place and earn a win this week against Rutgers. He’s also confident that this standout game is only the beginning for him.
“I don’t want to say I’m not back or I’m back,” Epstein said. “I got a lot of work to do myself. I gotta be better. I don’t think I’m where I need to be. I think I got a lot better football in me. As good or as bad as I’ve been playing I think I’m a lot better so I gotta continue to grow in practice and it’s been a while since I’ve played football since the first game this year so every reps helping me I feel like I’m getting better with every rep and every game as I go I’ll get better. Scary part is I’ve got a lot more in me.”