CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Coming into the season, coach Lovie Smith made it clear that the young guys on his Illinois team would have the opportunity to play early.
In Illinois' 24-21 victory over Ball State to open the season, he played 12 true freshmen.
Running back Mike Epstein was one of them and while he didn't start the game in the backfield, he did help finish it. On the Illini's final offensive play, he put his team ahead for good with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Epstein led the team with 54 rushing yards and 105 all-purpose yards, scoring twice in his collegiate debut. Smith said that a lot off freshmen stepped up in the narrow victory, but added that Epstein's performance was not a surprise.
''He didn't play like a freshman,'' Smith said. ''(He) couldn't have had a better opening day. But that's how he's been and we'll even expect more from him.''
Smith said that Epstein showed a lot of versatility - running, receiving and returning the ball - and that he has been fully invested in the program since the first day he stepped on campus. His performance Saturday was a personal milestone in a journey that seems to have finally come together.
Back in 2015, Epstein was the first Class of 2017 player to commit to Illinois under then-coach Tim Beckman. But after Beckman was fired and replacement coach Bill Cubit was also let go, he wasn't sure if he would remain committed to the Illini.
After a big senior season at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in which he rushed for 1,173 yards and 16 touchdowns, Epstein received late offers from Miami, UCLA and Indiana. He said the additional interest, coupled with offers he already had from Michigan and West Virginia, made his decision even more difficult.
But after Illinois brought in former NFL coach Smith, Epstein knew it was where he wanted to be.
''When I met Coach Smith in person I was blown away, just the humbleness he has,'' Epstein said. ''He's been where I want to be. I want to follow that path.''
Epstein said it was difficult to decide which touchdown he liked more - his first career score or the go-ahead TD. He ultimately chose the latter, but also acknowledged that he wasn't the only one who had a special day.
In his first game in nearly a thousand days and on his first catch, wide receiver Mike Dudek scored the Illini's first touchdown of the year. He also recorded 102 all-purpose yards and had a 52-yard punt return that set up Epstein's game-winning score.
Epstein and Dudek have both had ACL injuries and both have had surgery from Dr. James Andrews. After seeing his teammate bring the home crowd to its feet Saturday, Epstein knows they have both come a long way.
''It was just great to see,'' Epstein said. ''I feel like me and Mikey talked about this a long time ago. Everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for everybody and this was just a part of the plan.''
Epstein said that he fulfilled some of his childhood dreams against the Cardinals and received a lot of positive feedback from fans following the game. He knows that adjustments have to be made for Saturday's home game against Western Kentucky - but Dudek said it was OK to enjoy the success for a bit, too.
''He really came out and showcased what he could do, despite being just 18 years old,'' Dudek said. ''That's pretty incredible.''
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