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Illinois at South Florida Preview: Can Lovie Smith’s crew continue to grow?

Illinois goes to South Florida as an underdog, can it pull the upset a week after showing improvement in a win over Western Kentucky?

When: Fri. Sept. 15; 7pm ET
Where: Tampa Bay, Fla.; Raymond James Stadium (65,857)
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: First meeting
Last Meeting: None
Line: South Florida (-16)

Illinois went in to last weekend as an underdog at home to Western Kentucky. The Illini proceeded to win 20-7 against one of the more high-octane offenses in the country. This after nearly being upset at home by Ball State in the season opener.

To say this team may be difficult to figure out is likely an understatement. We’re guessing it’s a very Illinois thing to do…just look to the Black and Purple people in Evanston. So, Week 3 will give us the answers we all need for the supposed “worst team” in the Big Ten, right?

A trip to Tampa Bay to take on South Florida means Lovie Smith going to a stadium he called home for two years as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But, his Illini have a long-standing tradition they’d like to break for Smith’s homecoming as well — a decade long drought in non-conference road games.

The Bulls have won 20 of their last 24 games and seem to be on a roll after struggling early on against San Jose State. This game is a true challenge of where Lovie Smith’s squad is at in Year 2.

 

1 Burning Question: Does Time Matter in Preparation?

We’re about to find out what an extra two days of preparation time does for the Illini, because they could have a major advantage thanks to Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida last weekend. The Bulls fled for safety on Thursday of last week and weren’t back to a normal practice until Tuesday of this week. That means just three full days of practice and preparation.

USF’s trials and tribulations off the field also have to be weighing heavily on their minds. Will playing football be the outlet for all that energy or will it be a distraction?

Charlie Strong and Co. have had a very interesting build up to this weekend’s matchup with the Illini. Let’s see if the lack of prep time on the field will matter or if the extra film study can make up for it.

2 Key Stats:

100: That seems to be the magic number for Illini freshman running back Mike Epstein.

It may be no coincidence that as Epstein goes, so goes the Illini offense. He put up 111 yards on the ground against Western Kentucky, becoming the first to do that since Ke’Shawn Vaughn did it in 2015. Guess what? Illinois won. Epstein put up 105 all-purpose yards in the Week 1 win over Ball State, including the game-winning plunge over the goal line with just 2:06 to play. Sensing a pattern already?

9: Illinois has started nine true freshman so far this season.

That number leads the nation in true freshman played. It also means some crazy ups and downs may be in order. Oh, and Illinois may win games we don’t expect and lose some as well. So, as we look to figure out what is going on in Champaign, it should be important to remember just how young this team really is.

3 Key Players:

Chayce Crouch, QB (Illinois): While it has been nice to see the development of Epstein the run game, Illinois passing attack has been one-dimensional to say the least. Crouch has been good at times, and there’s no denying his athletic ability helps the team in a major way. But, outside of his budding relationship with Mikey Dudek, the overall production hasn’t been there. He’s had just one touchdown pass to two interceptions and that TD number, along with his 54.5 completion percentage needs to go up in a hurry.

Quinton Flowers, QB (South Florida): As important as Mike Epstein seems to be for the Illini offense, there is little doubt over who runs the show for the Bulls offense. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is as bruising a read-option quarterback as exists in college football. He’s equally dangerous as a passer, with 398 yards and four touchdowns already on the season. Illinois defense will be tested by Flowers in a major way and if they limit him to productivity in one area it could be a win.

Deadrin Senat, DT (South Florida): If the Illini are going to do anything offensively, they need to win the battle up front. That could be easier said than done though, because Senat is a bull (pun intended) up front. The 310-pound defensive tackle had a monster 2016 with 40 tackles and 7.0 tackles for loss. He’s off to a good start in 2017 as well, putting up 4 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

Prediction:

South Florida 31, Illinois 21

Yes the Bulls are good, and may arguably be the best of the teams in the Group of 5 conferences. But, they are playing on a short week against an improving and much more confident Illini bunch. Charlie Strong’s crew wins out due to its overall experience, but the lack of a full week of game prep will bite them on occasion. Look for Epstein to power a few early scores before USF takes over later in the game for the 10-point win.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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