CHAMPAIGN — News started to trickle up the stands on Saturday and right up to the coach's box near the top of Memorial Stadium, where Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith was perched.
Smith heard that his starting quarterback, AJ Bush Jr., was begging to come back in the game against Western Illinois after leaving at the end of the first quarter with a hamstring injury.
But Smith saw Bush limping on the sidelines and never got clearance to put the fifth-year graduate transfer back in the game. Instead, freshman M.J. Rivers II stayed in the game, and Illinois went on to win 34-14.
There's no quarterback controversy in Champaign. Bush is the starter if he's healthy when the Illini travel to Solider Field in Chicago on Saturday against South Florida. Bush will be evaluated throughout the week.
“If he’s ready to go, then obviously he’s the guy," Smith said of Bush. "We have to wait and see how he responds and see if he’s 100 percent."
The word on Bush didn't carry a gloom-and-doom feeling at head coach Lovie Smith's press conference on Monday.
“We’ll get to the practice field and see a little bit," Lovie Smith said. "AJ will tell you it’s not as bad. Whenever you can’t finish a game there’s concern, but again, he’s making a lot of progress."
Though a healthy Bush is the Illini quarterback, Rivers gained high praise from his teammates and coaches after going 9 of 16 for 105 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
His two touchdown passes went to freshman receiver Edwin Carter, who suffered a leg injury after flipping into the end zone on the second catch. Love Smith said Carter is out for the season with a "significant knee injury."
“It might be the best catch I’ve ever witnessed in the present in my career," Rod Smith said. "It was unbelievable. He held on to the ball. I was scared he broke his neck.
“What a catch. What an absolute catch. My heart goes out to the kid. He keeps getting better and better each and every day. He showed some things Saturday that we were all like, ‘Wow, we can’t wait to have this kid for the next three years.’"
Lovie Smith and Rod Smith said Rivers established himself as the backup quarterback as camp progressed, though Rod Smith did note that Rivers and fellow freshman Matt Robinson are "really close" in competition.
"It has been a process going throughout," Lovie Smith said. "Starting off with training camp with guys competing for the starting position. A.J. (Bush) won that, but there were more competitions going on in the other spots. Matt (Robinson) did some good things during training camp. For a period of time, we thought M.J. (Rivers) should get the next reps. Glad we did because he played well."
Rivers said after the game on Saturday night that he wasn't aware he would be the team's No. 2 option until his name was called to open the second quarter.
"I like to keep them on edge," Rod Smith said. "I tell them all, you prepare to be the starter. When your name gets called, it’s time to go out and perform."
Rivers' arm was lauded by both Lovie Smith and Rod Smith and the poise he showed in the pocket in his first college action.
“I thought he did some good things for his first time," Rod Smith said. "There are some things you’d like to get back, obviously, but there are a lot of positives as well. M.J. can throw the football pretty well. He’s got to calm down his feet some in the pocket and has to learn to trust protection a little bit better at times, and he’s got to learn to get rid of the football a little quicker. Overall, for his first outing, I thought he had a pretty good showing."
Senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti gave Rivers high marks after Saturday's game.
“Incredibly confident," Allegretti said of Rivers. "I was really excited to see that. He’s a young kid, a true freshman, and let alone a true freshman quarterback. That’s probably the hardest position to play as a true freshman. It looked like he was ready to start the game no matter what. I was excited to see that."
On the sideline, Rivers was getting help from Bush, who Rivers latched on to during training camp.
Bush spent time on the sideline on a bicycle and running in an attempt to return.
“He helped me a lot," Rivers said on Saturday. "He gave me some tips here and there on what I needed to do on these plays. Being able to hear from him was great."
Rod Smith praised Bush for being an extra set of eyes and ears for Rivers. Smith knew how badly Bush wanted to be back on the field.
“He’s a competitor, but he’s also a first-class teammate," Rod Smith said. "He’s there to help the quarterbacks. He’s there to be the other set of eyes and to be another voice to those guys.
“He’s huge — not this to our team, but to my room and the whole program."
NOTES: Lovie Smith did not go in depth on potential players who could return from injury or suspension on Saturday. He said players were progressing and that Ricky Smalling was "really close" last week, and that this is the time in the calendar that was initially marked as a possible time for cornerback Tony Adams to return. “If you’re healthy to go on Saturday, we’ll play you," Lovie Smith said.
On tight end Louis Dorsey, cornerback Nate Hobbs, safety Bennett Williams, receiver Carmoni Green and defensive lineman Deon Pate, each of whom are suspended, Smith said: “They’re getting closer. It’s a new week coming up this week," Lovie Smith said.