7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: South Florida -17.5, Over/Under: 51
As Hurricane Irma has wrecked plenty of havoc on the world outside of Football in the state of Florida, many of it’s teams look to return to their duties as the Twenty-Second-Ranked South Florida Bulls host the Illinois Fighting Illini from the confines of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. We’ll get into the adversity facing the home side soon, but we’ll kick things off first with Illinois (2-0, 0-0 in Big Ten), who now in their second season under the guidance of Lovie Smith are one win away from matching last year’s win total. Tonight’s contest will probably bring back no shortage of memories for the veteran Head Coach, who enjoyed two separate stints on the sidelines in this stadium, first as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Linebackers Coach from 1996 to 2000 and most recently as their Head Coach from 2014 to 2015. Now in the College Ranks, Smith appears to be far more comfortable now than when he arrived in Champagne a year ago, as he has set himself to the task of building this team into his preferred vision, which as you can imagine starts on the defensive side of the ball. Through two games, the Illini have been suffocating defensively, allowing an average of 14.0 Points per Game (28th Overall) on just 309.5 Total Yards, while totaling four Turnovers and five Sacks. Freshman Edge Rusher Bobby Roundtree has been explosive thus far, amassing three Sacks and a pair of Deflected Passes in the first two games of collegiate career. In their 20-7 victory over Western Kentucky they completely snuffed out the visitor’s Running Game, permitting just six Yards on sixteen Carries, for a miniscule 0.4 Yards per Carry if you’re not mathematically inclined. Special Teams (which was also a hallmark of Smith’s teams) has also played a major role this year, particularly in his charges’ 24-21 victory over Ball State in the Season Opener; after pulling ahead with juts over two minutes left to play, Illinois blocked a potential game-tying Field Goal as time expired. Furthermore, the go-ahead Touchdown in that contest was set up by a 52-yard Punt Return courtesy of Junior Receiver Mike Dudek (8 REC, 93 YDS, 1 TD), who has emerged as a playmaker after missing each of the past two seasons with torn ACLs. With all that said, the development of the Offense has been far more incremental, as the Illini have struggled to maintain consistency, averaging just 22.0 Points per Game (101st Overall) on a meager 258.0 Total Yards. Junior Quarterback Chayce Crouch has left a lot to be desired after beating out Jeff George for the starting gig back in Camp, completing just 54.5% of his Attempts for 252 Yards (5.7 Y/A), a Touchdown and a pair of Interceptions in the two wins. While he was generally ineffective in the opener against Ball State (10-of-19, 145 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT), he rushed for a key Two-Point Conversion to lengthen the lead to three points, and scored his team’s only Offensive Touchdown with a 9-yard rush against the Hilltoppers. There doesn’t appear to be any such problems in the Backfield, for Tailback Mike Epstein looks to be another gem from Smith’s recent Recruiting Class, rushing for 165 Yards and two Touchdowns on thirty-two Carries, including the go-ahead against the Cardinals, his second of the day.
Meanwhile, as they finally return to their native state, South Florida (2-0, 0-0 in AAC) must attempt to put aside the destruction wrought from Hurricane Irma and focus on the Illini in matchup that is far more significant than it would first seem. Last weekend’s game at Connecticut was canceled as the state of Florida prepared for the storm’s arrival, and the team was left with securing their own safety. Now these kids must focus their attention back to the gridiron, and go about improving upon previous performances. As we’ll get into in just a it, the Bulls have not played at a level befitting their ranking thus far in earning victories over the likes of San Jose State (42-22) and Stony Brook (31-17). Against the former, Charlie Strong’s charges relinquished sixteen unanswered points to begin the contest, before finally running off the game’s next forty-two points, while against the latter (an FCS School no less), they actually trailed 10-7 at Halftime, before pulling away late. If the American Athletic Conference residents plan on impressing the voters enough to make some headway up the Polls, then they’re going to need to be much more convincing when they face stiffer competition, which brings us to tonight’s meeting with Illinois; the Illini hold the distinction of being the only opponent hailing from a Power-Five Conference on their schedule, which is huge for a team that perpetually finds themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the discussion of Major Bowls and their participants. The biggest issue plaguing this Program is perception; after being labeled as Giant Killers on the strength of their work in the past decade, the Bulls had at one point lost a dozen consecutive contests against Power-Five Conference opponents, before knocking off North Carolina State twice and outlasting South Carolina in last year’s Birmingham Bowl. First and foremost, if this team is to indeed live up to their preseason expectations, then they’re going to need Quinton Flowers to elevate his game; the Senior Quarterback was hailed by some as a dark horse pick for the Heisman Trophy, but has been relatively ordinary in his two starts against what are quite frankly weaker opponents. 2016 was a huge campaign for Flowers, who completed a career-high 62.5% of his Attempts for 2,812 Yards (8.5 Y/A), twenty-four Touchdowns and seven Interceptions, while absolutely wrecking opponents with his legs, rushing for 1,530 Yards and another eighteen scores on a whopping 7.7 Yards per Carry. However, through two outings thus far, the veteran Signal-Caller has completed just 30-of-54 Passes (55.6%) for 398 Yards (7.4 Y/A), four Touchdowns and an Interception, along with 137 Rushing Yards (3.8 Y/A) and a score. It doesn’t help matters that the remainder of the Backfield feels unsettled, with Tailbacks Darius Tice (151 YDS, 3 TD) and D’Ernest Johnson (114 YDS 2 TD) vying to fill the void by the since departed Marlon Mack. A Fourth Round Pick of the Indianapolis Colts, Mack was nothing short of productive in his three years at South Florida, rushing for 3,609 Yards (6.2 Y/A) and thirty-two Touchdowns over his career, while racking up a healthy 6.8 Yards per Carry and fifteen scores in 2016 alone. Fortunately, the Defense has been as advertised for Strong and Co., yielding 19.5 Points per Game on 308.0 Yards, while forcing five Turnovers and totaling six Sacks. Veteran Defensive Backs Mazzi Wilkins and Devin Abraham headline an experienced Secondary, combining for four Interceptions and three Defended Passes in the first two games.