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Behind Enemy Lines: South Florida Bulls

Collin Sherwin of The Daily Stampede joins us to preview the Illinois vs USF game

NCAA Football: South Florida-Charlie Strong Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois (2-0) will finish up its non-conference schedule by taking a trip down to Tampa, Florida, to play No. 22 South Florida (2-0). Collin Sherwin is the site manager for The Daily Stampede, and he joined us this week to answer our questions about the Bulls.

You can read Collin’s work at The Daily Stampede and follow him on Twitter @USFCollin.

1. What was the feeling for the USF fanbase when the team hired ex-Texas Longhorns and Louisville coach Charlie Strong after losing Willie Taggart to Oregon?

Considering what they lost, it was as good as USF could do as a replacement. The national sense that Strong didn’t get a fair shake at Texas certainly played a role in that excitement. He’s still likely a very good football coach, and considering Taggart’s buyout paid for the first two years of Strong, it was the best that could be expected.

When you’re Group of Five, and with the massive budget restrictions that come with it, that kind of thing matters.

2. South Florida is the highest ranked group of 5 school currently (AP #22). Do you think they will finish the year playing a a New Year's 6 Bowl?

I think they’re still the favorite, but as lethargic as the offense has looked the past two weeks, I’m less sure than I was preseason.

USF was the fourth-ranked offense in FBS by S&P last season. They were a delight to watch, and with the depth at the skill positions returning, it seemed a cinch they’d be able to keep it rolling. But the changes brought by Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert have a lot of fans concerned. They’ve been much less efficient and explosive so far, and a lot of the staple plays that catered to Quinton Flowers’ skill set haven’t been seen.

If the Bulls start implementing more parts of the “Gulf Coast Offense” of Taggart last season, I like their chances more. The defense is improved from last year’s tragically awful unit under coordinator Raymond Woodie, so it might be that this Bulls team is just more balanced.

But the lack of a flashy offense led by Flowers does make things more on the precipice than I thought it would be.

3. We all know that Quinton Flowers is an absolute stud at QB, but who are some other players Illinois fans should be aware of?

USF has tremendous depth at the skill positions, which was the key to their success last season. Look for Marquez Valdes-Scantling as the primary receiver, he’s an NFL talent. Look for Tyre McCants, Temi Alaka, and Darnell Salomon as three capable threats at wide receiver, but there’s another four or five guys behind them that can be trusted. Alaka didn’t even make the three-deep depth chart a week before the opening game with SJSU, but he’s been a weapon far.

In the backfield, Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson will split duties as the running back, as USF has played almost exclusively in one-back sets. Tice seems to be the featured choice so far, but we’ve seen Johnson be an effective pass catcher out of the backfield. But in 2017, USF hasn’t thrown a single pass to a running back yet.

Defensively, Auggie Sanchez has been the Bulls leading tackler since he enrolled in 1947. At least it seems that way. Look for the other starting linebacker in the 4-2-5, Nico Sawtelle, to make an impact as well. Bulls fans have been pleasantly surprised this season by former walk-on defensive end Greg Reaves, who just earned his scholarship about a month ago.

4. How will USF look to attack the Illinois defense?

That’s the thing: we just don’t know.

What we’ve seen so far this season is plenty of three-WR sets, but a ton of running the ball between the tackles behind an offensive line that might be the worst unit on the team. What made the Gulf Coast Offense so special was the ability to get players in space by any means necessary. Zone read, then play action shots against man coverage. Screens to keep defenses honest and having to account for Flowers’ elite scrambling ability.

Jamming the square peg of this offense into the round hole of USF’s elite speed and athleticism (at least by G5 standards) doesn’t make a lot of sense. After two sub-mediocre weeks, and an unexpected week off due to Irma, do they hit the reset button and get back to basics?

We cover the team, and we have no idea. They only let us into the special teams portions of practice. So basically, we’re all going to find out together.

5. What is your prediction for the game?

Even with the lack of oomph, the stats seem to bear out that the Illinois offense isn’t that potent either. I think USF’s improved defense, especially along the defensive line, will give the Bulls a chance to get stom stops. The spread is 17.5 I think for a reason, but I don’t think USF flips the switch just quite yet.

USF 27-Illinois 14.

Bulls win, Illini cover.

Thanks again to Collin Sherwin for answering our questions.