Illinois quarterback Eddie McGee has been saying all along that he's one play away from being the starter. Juice Williams has played ahead of him the past three years, and Eddie has seen only sporadic opportunities to refine his skills on the battlefield.
But Saturday against Illinois State, Williams pulled a leg muscle on his first play and McGee played the rest of the way. He was the most popular Illini in the postgame press conference.
"It was exciting," McGee related. "It's always exciting to get back on the field. It felt really good just to help my team come out and get a win and score points."
McGee played extensively against Missouri and Iowa two years ago, and he has seen at least brief opportunities in a number of other games. But it is still hard to go into a game when you aren't expecting it.
"Yeah, your first snap you're always gonna have butterflies. But after that first snap, the butterflies leave. Your nervousness leaves and your adrenalin and momentum just takes over.
"I came out a little flat, a little nervous. But after that first series, I got my stuff together. I just needed to come out that first play with high intensity, like my teammates."
The 6'-4", 210 pounder helped the Illini to a 31-0 lead on their way to a convincing 45-17 victory, and he ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. But he was not satisfied with his play.
"I played an okay game. I kept us in the game and led us down the field. But I don't think I did too well. I'm my worst critic. I think I could have did a lot better."
He did admit that his play improved as his time on the field increased. He calmed down and let his ability take over.
"Yeah, I did alot. I just helped out the team the more I was relaxed. They looked to me to keep it going. When they saw I was relaxed and confident, everything else fell in place."
Illinois practices the 2 minute offense every day, and McGee knows the routine by heart. But he was not as efficient with it at the end of the first half as usual.
"Yeah, it's a little bit different. It's live. It counts. That's probably the biggest difference. But going out and making my reads, things like that, it's just like practice. We do it so often in practice, when it comes time in the game, it's almost second nature."
The backup quarterback is supposed to play with confidence, but it can be hard to keep your spirits up when you are watching from the sideline every game. There is nothing like playing time to prepare you for future opportunities.
"Yeah, it's just given me more confidence that I can perform and help my team when we need it. I think it also helps my team out, knowing I can step up."
Of course, it also reminded him not to slack off in his game preparation even though he may go a few games with no playing time.
"Yeah, definitely. You always have to work hard knowing you're one play away. Just like today. Seeing what happened today is like a wakeup call."
Star receiver Arrelious Benn saw his streak of 26 straight college games with a reception come to an end Saturday, and McGee was sad for his friend and teammate. But he says it was simply a matter of circumstance.
"Normally during a game, I don't think about who should be getting the ball. I just try to read the coverage and try to take what the defense is giving me."
Does the victory over ISU make up for the disappointment of losing to Missouri in St. Louis.
"No. We've got to keep it going for the rest of the season. It's just one victory, one notch on our belt. We've got to keep it moving. We can't let our highs be too high, and we can't let our lows be too low."
The next opponent is Big 10 power Ohio State. The Illini have two weeks to prepare, and the Washington D.C. product thinks the extra time is beneficial.
"Yeah, I think it will be good for us. Let our bodies rest a little bit and get in extra practice for O-State. They're a great team, and we're gonna have to bring it."
McGee seems sincere when discussing the realities of the quarterback position and his role on the team.
"I always like to play. But if Juice plays the whole game, I'm perfectly fine with that as long as we win. I'm fine with whatever coach decides.
"This is Juice's team. Juice is still the guy. When he gets back healthy, it's gonna be his team. I'm just always that guy who's one play away."