Illinois Fighting Illinois at South Florida Bulls
Friday, September 15, 6:00 p.m. CT
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
In each of their two games this season, the Fighting Illini have looked radically different.
Skill players like the Mikes — Dudek and Epstein — made fools of Ball State and led fans to believe the Fighting Illini could have an explosive offense if Garrick McGee can get the ball in their hands with regularity. Yet against the similar Western Kentucky, the offense lost all its explosion and merely plodded down the field for a couple scores.
And while the defense struggled to clamp down on quarterback Riley Neal and the Cardinals in week one, Illinois looked absolutely dominant while suffocating the purportedly potent Hilltoppers offense.
Increasingly, it seems that classic Lovie Smith defense will determine whether the Illini sink or swim. But unfortunately for the orange and blue, South Florida may be that defense’s toughest assignment of the season.
Where Riley Neal occasionally lumbered down the field for frustrating conversions on third down, USF Quarterback Quinton Flowers has the speed to break any broken play for a touchdown. The Illini have done a fantastic job of limiting explosive plays thus far, but they’ve also played two teams that don’t look for big gains on a regular basis.
USF plays fast (#2 nationwide in adjusted pace) and loose in true air raid fashion. They’ll use that trademark Florida speed at the skill positions to open up Illinois’ defense with screens and run-pass options. Flowers is nearly as capable a passer as he is a runner, and Illinois will need to account for both skills on every single down.
That necessary mindfulness makes this game a much greater defensive challenge for the Illini than any they’ve faced thus far. If Illinois tries to sit its freshmen-filled secondary 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, USF has shown this season it’s willing to move drives 6 yards at a time. And if Illinois tries to press up and take away the screens, it opens up the possibility of youthful mistakes the Illinois coaching staff has worked so hard to minimize through two weeks.
One area where the Illini could take advantage of a mismatch is in the trenches. USF’s offensive line hasn’t looked particularly special thus far and with competition like San Jose State and Stony Brook, it’s safe to say a solid unit would have shown something by now. Illinois’ defensive strength remains in its line, most consistently in the interior. Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan could be hugely helpful by creating pressure right up the middle against Flowers — a particularly effective strategy against scrambling quarterbacks.
But on the whole, this match-up reads like trouble for the Illinois defense. A mobile quarterback is enough to turn a conservative, bend-but-don’t-break defense on its head and most of these Illini have never seen a player like Flowers.
Charlie Strong’s signature 3-3-5 defense lies in wait on the other side of the ball, and it should be an interesting test for a struggling Illinois offense. Quarterback Chayce Crouch has struggled to consistently deliver the ball on time, and the Illini offensive line has hardly been better than “meh” in 2017.
But South Florida’s defense hasn’t done anything impressive either. Holding San Jose State to 22 and Stony Brook to 17 is okay enough, but the Bulls ranked 110th in defensive S&P+ last season.
Their aggressive style this year has led to more havoc for opposing offenses, but we’ve yet to see whether that holds up against a team with Big Ten (or hey, at least MAC) athleticism.
USF favors an alignment with a single high safety and 7-8 men in the box, which you can read all about in the always-linked-and-always-will-be-linked X’s and O’s preview by Craig at Illiniboard. Illinois will probably come into this game trying to use bigger personnel and take advantage of the 3-3-5’s weaknesses against heavy units. They’ll try to wear down the USF defense with a thus-far-not-terrible run-blocking offensive line.
But USF knows that, so it’s likely they’ll be in the box early and often. Illinois couldn’t stretch the field successfully against either Ball State or Western Kentucky, and Illini fans can expect things to look pretty conservative yet again this week.
When USF inevitably drops safeties and cornerbacks into the box to help stop Mike Epstein and Kendrick Foster, that’ll leave plenty of rooms down the sidelines and seams for Crouch to throw into. But Illini fans have yet to see him prove he can make any of those throws.
I suspect USF is thinking the same thing and will force him show that ability on the first few drives. If he can’t get it done, the Illini could be in for a long night. If Crouch is on point, then anything is possible.
The match-up for this game is a mixed bag on both sides. Combine that weirdness with ongoing weather problems and a highly emotional week for both sides of the field, and we might have a wild one on our hands Friday night.
It’ll all depend on which side of Illinois football shows up.
We thought Western Kentucky would be where the rubber met the road for this Illinois squad. But the Hilltoppers weren’t up for the challenge.
With USF finally back at home and perhaps feeling particularly motivated after a harrowing two weeks, and these young Illini on the road for the first time, I’m not feeling optimistic.
SOUTH FLORIDA 37, ILLINOIS 16
Follow Matt Silich on Twitter at @msilich2.