Who:                   Illinois Illini vs. #22 USF Bulls
What:                  Inter-conference college football game
When:                 Friday, September 15, 2017
Where:                Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Why:                   AAC vs. Big 10 Conference

The #22 USF Bulls will host the 2-0 Illinois Illini Friday night at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.  This will be the first of a two game series between these teams, who are facing each other for the first time. 

The two programs come from opposite ends of the age spectrum, with Illinois celebrating nearly 120 years of college football, the Bulls are in their 21st season.  The game will feature a homecoming of sorts for Illini head coach, Lovie Smith, who coached Raymond James Stadium’s primary tenants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, from 1996-2000 and again as head coach from 2014-2015.  Smith was also the head coach of the Chicago Bears before heading to Tampa.  Both of those teams formerly coached by Smith will play on the same field on Sunday.

USF is ranked in the top 25 to start a season for just the second time in program history and put their 2-0 record on line against an Illinois team who has posted more than 6 wins just three times in the past decade.  The Illini had a close game with Ball State, winning 24-21 to start the season and took an easy win from Western Kentucky, 20-7.  The Bulls struggled in the first quarter against San Jose State to start their season, only to score 42 unanswered points and an easy 42-22 win.   They also inexplicably struggled with Stony Brook of the FCS until the fourth quarter, when they built up their two touchdown lead that won the game, 31-17.

USF Offense
The Bulls finished 2016 with the 4th ranked scoring offense, scoring nearly 44 points per game, and 5th ranked rushing offense, averaging 285 yards per game.  They also ranked 3rd in rushing touchdowns, with 47.  In 2017, those positions have dropped significantly.  In scoring offense, they rank 43rd, in rushing offense, they rank 31st, and they are tied for 20th with 6 rushing touchdowns. 

A big part of that rushing attack from 2017 came on the feet of dual-threat quarterback, Quinton Flowers.  Flowers rushed for nearly 118 yards per game in 2017, but has averaged just 68 yards per game, this season.  Flowers is averaging just under 200 yards per game passing. 

Replacing 1000 yard rusher and current Indianapolis Colt at running back is the tandem of Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson.  The senior duo have racked up a combined 5 total touchdowns in two games and average a combined 132 yards per game on the ground. 

Receivers are led by senior receiver, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has 106 yards and one touchdown this season.  Close behind at number two is junior receiver, Tyre McCants, who has 98 yards and a score.

Illinois Defense
Illinois’ defense is currently ranked 28th in the nation in points allowed, giving up an average 14 points to their opponents.  Junior linebackers, Del’Shawn Phillips and Tre Watson lead the unit with 22 and 16 tackles, respectively.  Watson and fellow linebacker, Julian Jones, also have an interception each, with Jones’ going for six.  In 2016, the Illini ranked 94th in scoring defense, nationally.

Illinois Offense
Offensively, the Illini rank 100th nationally in scoring, averaging just 22 points per game against sub-par competition.  After just two games, they have a fairly balanced split between passing and rushing.  Junior quarterback, Chayce Crouch, leads the offense, passing for 126 yards per game scoring just one touchdown and throwing two interceptions.  They rank 120th in the nation in passing offense.  Part of the struggle for Crouch has been inconsistency in the offensive line, which has started ten different linemen in just two games. 

Crouch is also known to run the ball some, averaging 23 yards per game rushing.  The leading rusher is running back, Mike Epstein, who has averaged 82 yards per game in his freshman campaign.  He has also scored two touchdowns through two games.  Junior receiver, Mike Dudek, and senior receiver, Malik Turner, split the receiving duties fairly evenly.  Dudek averages 46 yards per game and Turner averages 35.  The Illini rushing game ranks 91st in the country, which is up a bit from 105th, last year.

USF Defense
The Bulls show a much improved defensive unit from one year ago.  In 2016, they ranked 92nd in scoring defense, allowing more than 31 points per game.  This year, they’re up to 50th, giving up just over 19.  Credit for the progress should be linked to first year USF head coach, Charlie Strong, who spent much of his career as a defensive coordinator for the University of Florida.  They’re 40th against the run and 63rd against the pass, up from 84th and 122nd, respectively. 

Senior linebacker, Auggie Sanchez, shares the team lead in tackles with sophomore linebacker, Nico Sawtelle, who each have 16.  Sanchez was ranked 20th nationally for tackles in 2016 with 117.  Senior defensive back, Devin Abraham, and junior defensive back, Mazzi Wilkins, lead the team and are tied for third nationally with two interceptions apiece.  Sawtelle’s one interception brings the team total to five, ranking the team 4th in the nation in interceptions.  In 2014, the Bulls had just six interceptions all year.  Six different Bulls have registered one sack each, ranking the team 28th in the nation for sacks. 

The Bulls have struggled to put away weak opposition and their offensive juggernaut from 2016 has not shown itself as yet, scoring 7 points off of that average, this season.  The Illini haven’t demonstrated the ability to handle a defense that is scoring more than 30 points per game, however.  Combined with the lack of strong offense for Illinois and USF’s improvement on defense, this game should heavily favor USF on paper.  The Bulls should improve their scoring above their present average and win the game pretty easily. 

USF are two touchdown favorites over Illinois with the current over / under of 56.  Kickoff is Friday evening at 7 PM EDT at Raymond James Stadium.  The game has been dubbed #baymade Youth Football Night by USF.  It can also be viewed on ESPN, nationally. 

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