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Illinois vs. South Florida Position Report Card

The Illini’s first loss of the season wasn’t pretty to watch

NCAA Football: Illinois at South Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois (2-1) couldn’t find any traction against South Florida (3-0) on Friday night, allowing a staggering 680 yards defensively. Remember last week when the Illini executed Lovie Ball in a win over Western Kentucky? That didn’t happen.

Illinois was outgained 680-354, (376-67 in rushing yards alone), lost the turnover margin 3-1 and possessed the ball for just 21:43 of game time, which all adds up to a blowout that was more one-sided than the final score showed.

Here’s a breakdown of how each position group fared in the Illini’s first loss of the season.

Quarterback

Grade: D-

A whole new can of worms was opened Friday night as Chayce Crouch was lifted from the game in favor of Jeff George Jr.

The change could’ve been made because of Crouch’s ineffectiveness, the wide deficit on the scoreboard or Lovie wanted to get Crouch out of the game to avoid injury (there’s no evidence that Crouch is injured — not that Lovie would tell the media anyway).

Crouch was 8 of 18 for 76 yards with an interception and rushed five times for 10 yards. He rarely had time to throw and just never got into a rhythm while under center.

George Jr.’s numbers look better, although he was facing mostly backups and soft defensive coverage. The sophomore was 12 of 22 throwing the ball for 211 yards and a touchdown but also gave up two interceptions.

Do the Illini have a quarterback controversy? Lovie and his staff have a bye week to figure it out.

Running backs

Grade: C-

Freshman sensation Mike Epstein had a 45-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to bring the Illini within a touchdown just before halftime, as well as a receiving touchdown. However, take out the big play and Epstein had seven carries for a grand total of 11 yards.

Ra’Von Bonner wasn’t any more effective, carrying twice for one yard, and Kendrick Foster did not record a carry and was limited to kickoff return duty.

Wide receivers

Grade: D

A bright spot was freshman Ricky Smalling taking a simple screen pass and scurrying 76 yards before being knocked out of bounds inside the 5-yard line. He was one yard shy of reaching 100 for the day.

Mikey Dudek was the most consistent option on the outside with six grabs for 65 yards, but Malik Turner continued his sluggish start to the season with four catches for 27 yards.

It’s tough for these receivers to produce because Crouch isn’t the most accurate passer and the offensive line struggles at times to give him time to throw the ball downfield.

Offensive line

Grade: D-

As mentioned in sections above, Illinois wasn’t able to open up lanes to run the ball, which made them dangerously one-dimensional and ineffective on offense.

In order to be successful, the Illini have to be able to run the ball consistently to set up the pass, not the other way around. This unit is starting two true freshmen (at least for now, no word on Larry Boyd’s status after he was removed from the game in the second half with an apparent injury) which is truly unheard of in the Big Ten.

This line will undergo growing pains, and we saw a lot of them Friday night.

Defensive line

Grade: F

The biggest surprise to the season had been just how dominant the Illini defensive line was in two games against Ball State and Western Kentucky.

Illinois was exposed by Quinton Flowers both on the ground and through the air, as the Illini defensive line was unable to contain him to the pocket or get off blocks in the running game. It was a foreboding sign on the first drive of the game, when Illini freshman defensive end Isaiah Gay burst upfield for a speed rush, only to have USF hand the ball off on a draw play for big yardage. The Illini have talent, but finding discipline — especially against a mobile quarterback — is the next stage in development for the young Illini.

Sean Adesanya and Tymir Oliver recorded sacks for Illinois.

Linebackers

Grade: F

Any time you give up nearly 700 (!!) yards of offense, you’re probably getting a grade on F just on principle.

Tre Watson was going to vital to slowing down Flowers because he is usually free to read the quarterback’s eyes on passing plays and can serve as a spy for scrambles.

Flowers was loose for much of the game, rushing 106 yards and a touchdown in addition to throwing for 280 yards and four more scores.

Watson had seven tackles and Del’Shawn Phillips had 10 as the only two main contributors at the position because the Illini played five defensive backs for much of the game.

Secondary

Grade: D-

The only reason this wasn’t an F was because of the play of freshman Tony Adams. He recorded his first career sack and interception, running stride for stride with his man on a fly route and picking off the ball in the end zone.

Adams played both in the nickel and outside, and it was good to see him show some versatility on the field. Jaylen Dunlap made his first appearance of the season but didn’t move the needle much for the Illini.

Safety Bennett Williams led the team with 12 tackles but a few missed tackles early on sprung long gains for the Bulls.

Special teams

Grade: A+

Hey! A good grade! The Illini blocked a field goal on the Bulls’ first drive to keep the score knotted at 0-0, then later stuffed an extra point and returned it for a two-point conversion to get on the board in the first quarter.

That’s now three blocks kicks in as many games for the Illini, which should make teams think twice before trotting the field goal unit out on the field.

Punter Blake Hayes was solid, booting the ball seven times for an average of 40.9 yards.