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Ex-Husker QB Bush strives to make Saturday ‘just another game’

November 7, 2018

AJ Bush Jr. strives to do something virtually impossible this week.

“I want to try to make it just another game,” the Illinois senior quarterback said Monday. “I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it.”

When Illinois travels to Lincoln to play Nebraska at 11 a.m. Saturday, Bush will return to the campus where his college career started in 2014. Although the Georgia native never appeared in a game in two seasons in the Husker program, he still speaks with fondness about his time in the program.

Listening to Bush, it would seem very difficult for him to regard Saturday as being “just another game.”

“I know it’s going to be exciting when I go back there and actually step off the plane,” he said. “But at the end of the day, like I’ve been telling everybody, it’s not a one-man show. It’s a team sport. We have to win this game.”

“I love Nebraska,” he added. “I have a great amount of respect for them. I know a lot of their players. Their fans, they’re great, too. I’m excited.”

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Bush, a graduate of Norcross High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, comes off his best game in an Illinois jersey. In a 55-31 home win against Minnesota, he was 18-for-25 passing for 216 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing 14 times for 135 yards and two more scores. With running back Reggie Corbin rushing 13 times for 213 yards, the Illini (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) gained 646 yards of total offense -- 230 more than their season average.

Illinois ranks 59th nationally in total offense, Nebraska 19th.

“Honestly, if we play like we did in the last game, we should have a really good chance of winning Saturday,” Bush said. “I know they have a good offense, so if we have two good offensive showings, it’ll be an exciting game for the fans.”

A three-star recruit in high school, Bush this season has completed 71 of 125 passes (56.8 percent) for 924 yards and five touchdowns, with five interceptions. He’s rushed 85 times for 472 yards (5.6) and five scores while starting six of nine games.

In a 63-33 loss to Maryland Oct. 27, Bush threw touchdown passes of 61 and 84 yards in the fourth quarter. Bush replaced M.J. Rivers, who had to leave after taking a hit to the head. Then came Bush’s uprising against Minnesota, which set up his intriguing trip to Lincoln.

He’s traveled a winding path. He left Nebraska in August of 2016, when he was third string behind Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe, and played in 10 games at Iowa Western that year and five last season as a backup at Virginia Tech.

“Why not keep trying?” he told the Chicago Tribune in early September. “You don’t always get the rewards right away. If it’s something you want to do, you don’t give up.”

So, here he is. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith indicated a level of understanding in Bush’s desire to approach Saturday as “just another game.”

“It’s a special time when you get a chance to go back to a place you considered home, where you have history,” the coach said. “So, yeah, there’s a little added incentive, I’m sure, for AJ.”

Smith praised Bush’s performance against Minnesota. This week, the coach said, Illinois is preparing to “go into the fourth quarter of our season.”

“Last week, we talked about, ’We’re at the end of the third quarter of our season, and we’re behind, and we’re getting ready to go into the fourth quarter where games are really won and lost,” Smith said. “That’s where we are with our season. I think AJ’s focused on that as much as anything.”

Smith said he talked to Bush about “putting two great games together back-to-back.”

If Bush puts up big numbers and Illinois wins in Lincoln, it most definitely won’t feel like “just another game.”

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