Illinois goes after its third straight victory to open the season and will face its most difficult challenge yet when coach Lovie Smith’s team visits a familiar place to take on well-rested No. 21 South Florida on Friday night. Smith returns to the site of his last job with NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the Bulls had last week’s game at Connecticut cancelled due to complications with Hurricane Irma.
The Fighting Illini knocked off Ball State and Western Kentucky while giving up a total of 28 points in their first two contests with a young defense that will be tested against an experienced team that has scored at least 30 points in 19 straight games. “They’re being put in situations that are new to them each week,” Smith told reporters of his defense after a 20-7 victory over Western Kentucky last week. “But, again, they’ve stepped up to the plate, and they’re taking advantage of it.” USF was not really sharp in its first two games, despite putting up 73 points combined and winning by an average of 17, but senior quarterback Quinton Flowers leads the way for a talented offense that can beat foes with the run and the pass. The Bulls did not practice over the weekend after the UConn game was canceled and will have to brush off some rust as they prepare for their second-to-last non-conference matchup of the season.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: USF -18
ILLINOIS (2-0): Three freshmen have started on defense for Smith’s squad, including linemen Bobby Roundtree (three sacks) and Isaiah Gay (one sack), while junior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips leads the way with 22 tackles and a half-sack. Junior wide receiver Mike Dudek, who has missed the last two seasons after suffering two torn ACLs in his left knee, is off to a strong start with eight catches for 93 yards and a score to lead the receiving corps. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch has thrown for 252 yards with one touchdown strike and two interceptions in the first two games while freshman running back Mike Epstein has rushed for 165 yards and two TDs.
SOUTH FLORIDA (2-0): Flowers threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception in the first two games, but his accuracy has not been as sharp (55.6 completion percentage) as in the past. The Bulls would like to get their rushing attack going again after managing just 153 yards in the close win against FCS member Stony Brook last time out, and will look for senior D’Ernest Johnson to return to his opening game form (99 yards on the ground) after gaining 15 on Sept. 2. USF’s defense will still have to get better but linebackers Nico Sawtelle and Auggie Sanchez lead the way for the Bulls, who have picked off five passes in two games.
1. Flowers is tied with Andre Hall for the second-most rushing yards in school history at 2,731, and owns 50 career TD passes.
2. Illinois senior WR Malik Turner boasts seven receptions for 70 yards and has caught at least one pass in 22 straight games.
3. South Florida senior WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling has hauled in 10 passes for 106 yards in the first two contests.
PREDICTION: South Florida 34, Illinois 21