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Illinois defense prepares for arguably nation’s best quarterback: USF’s Quinton Flowers

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The Illini have a tall task stopping Flowers.

Stony Brook v South Florida College Football Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Images

Illinois travels to Tampa to take on the USF Bulls this Friday night on ESPN. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for this week.

Lovie Smith’s team psyche vs. Charlie Strong’s break in routine

Here at TCR, our hearts and thoughts go out to all of those who were and still are suffering from the wrath of Hurricane Irma.

One can bet for at least a few days over the past week, football was not at the forefront of USF’s minds — that applies to coaches, players, students, administrators and fans. That in and of itself is a break in game preparation routine. USF’s scheduled game against Connecticut last Saturday was canceled. The Bulls won their first two games against San Jose State and Stony Brook by a combined score of 73-39. After an unexpected week off and all of the non-football/logistical components of the last seven-to-nine days here, what’s the mindset of the USF team? Are they ready to play? How does their change in schedule impact their ability to focus on football? An article in the Tampa Bay Times mentions that the Bulls haven’t practiced since last Thursday. The Bulls began on-field preparations for the Illini game on Tuesday.

For Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini, this team had its best performance in two years in the home win against Western Kentucky. The defense was excellent, forcing three-and-outs and scoring on a pick-6 in Champaign. For a team that didn’t taste much success last year, how will Illinois respond on the road after a convincing win? Will the freshmen and sophomores continue to improve and build on their performance, or will things stall in a hostile environment against a ranked opponent?

Illini DE’s Bobby Roundtree & Isaiah Gay containment vs. Quinton Flowers’ rangy athleticism

South Florida has one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Quinton Flowers. “He can do it all,” coach Lovie Smith said in his Monday afternoon press conference when asked about what kind of challenge Flowers poses to his defense.

Flowers’ numbers last year weren’t much different than Lamar Jackson’s, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner. Flowers is lethal running the ball and he’s comfortable doing so.

It’s critically important for the Illinois DE’s Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay — players who had monster games against Western Kentucky last week — to play smart and disciplined. Flowers is a whole different beast compared to WKU’s QB Mike White. Sacking Flowers should not be the goal; containing him in the pocket, and not allowing the dual-threat quarterback run around behind the line of scrimmage, should be.

Illini offensive line vs. USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez

Fifth-year senior Auggie Sanchez is a load for the USF Bulls. The middle linebacker is one of the American Athletic Conference’s all-time leaders in tackles. Sanchez recorded 116 tackles in 2016 and 112 tackles in 2015.

The Illini offensive line must get to the second level and make sure they block this guy. Sanchez always seems to be the first player to make contact with the ball carrier. If the Illini hope to get the run game going with Mike Epstein, Kendrick Foster and Co., they’ll have to make sure Auggie Sanchez is accounted for.