Both the Illinois Fighting Illini and South Florida Bulls enter Week 3 undefeated. This game will mark just the second time the Illini have faced USF — the first was last year when the Bulls romped Illinois in Tampa last season, 47-23. Two of USF’s captains from last season’s team, Quarterback Quinton Flowers and linebacker Auggie Sanchez have since graduated, but make no mistake: this Bulls team is as dangerous as it was a season ago.
Special Teams: Which team imposes their will?
It’s rare that a post talking about key matchups begins with special teams. That’s what happens when a USF player — specifically true freshman Terrence Horne — goes for not one, but TWO kickoff touchdown returns in last week’s home win versus Georgia Tech. The two-star athlete held just one Power 5 offer (from Oregon State), but WOW, did he put on a show on national television last week. Here’s a taste, compliments of ACC Digital Network:
The task is easy — in theory. If you are the Illini and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky, you tell your players to avoid kicking to Horne at all costs, even if it means a squib kick down the middle or even kicking the ball out of bounds.
On the other side, Illinois has to be proud of its special teams unit so far this season. Against Western Illinois, the Fighting Illini blocked a punt for a touchdown. Kicker Chase McLaughlin was 2-for-2 last week against Western, even making a 54-yard attempt look easy in some windy conditions. Punter Blake Hayes continues to look the part — several of his punts were pinned inside the 20-yard line a week ago.
Illinois defensive containment vs. USF slippery quarterback
The good news for Illinois fans? Quinton Flowers, who terrorized the Illini for five total touchdowns and nearly 400 yards of total offense last season, is gone. The bad news? Alabama transfer Blake Barnett is now the Bulls’ signal caller, and while he isn’t as dynamic of an athlete as Flowers was, Barnett is similarly dangerous moving outside of the pocket with the ball in his hands.
Barnett is more of a pocket passer than Flowers was, but not by much. When a play breaks down and Barnett is forced to the sidelines, his head and eyes are always up and looking downfield, and he’s scary accurate in those situations.
Look at how he lines up and reads a defense:
Blake Barnett's 19 yard TD run!— Prime Bam Childress (@fearthe_beard11) September 8, 2018
He's USF's leading rusher right now. pic.twitter.com/mMZnzIyvvM
Illinois’ defensive linemen, specifically the rangy athletes like Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree, absolutely have to win their one-on-one matches at the point of attack. They can’t get blown off the ball like they did in the opening quarter against Western Illinois.
Illinois’ chances of winning and keeping this game close depends on Gay and Roundtree being able to keep Blake Barnett inside the pocket where he’s more containable as a pocket thrower.
Illinois run game versus USF’s bend-but-don’t-break D
USF’s defense, led by safety/linebacker Jaymon Thomas, did a decent job last week of bending and not breaking against Georgia Tech’s heralded triple-option attack. USF allowed 412 rushing yards on 57 Yellow Jackets attempts, which isn’t bad considering the Jackets were just 3-of-12 on third down. Georgia Tech was put in many 3rd-and-long situations all game long, which is less than ideal for a team that needs to get ahead of the chains if it wants to control the game and win.
Illinois started its opening drive against Western Illinois without running the football. Once the Illini settled in (and after A.J. Bush’s injury), Illini O-coordinator Rod Smith decided to ride Mike Epstein to the house. The sophomore from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, finished the game with 105 yards on just eight attempts. The Illini need Mike Epstein to put on a show at Soldier Field this coming week. Even if he has four and five-yard carries here and there, the Illini need to keep USF’s offense off the field and keep that Bulls defense guessing when it comes to RPO plays, which only work efficiently when the defense respects the running game.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!