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11(?) Up, 11(?) Down: Illinois

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Lovie Smith returns to Tampa after a Year Zero at Illinois in 2016.

Illinois v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

2016 Record: 3-9, 2-7 Big Ten (good for 11th. Ha ha, B1G can’t count)

Head Coach: Lovie Smith, 2nd season

Famous alumni: Dick Butkus, Bobby Mitchell, Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange

Date/Time: Friday, September 15th, 7:00 p.m.

Series History: First meeting

Other Previews: Bill Connelly, Off Tackle Empire 1, Off Tackle Empire 2

Last season: After the disastrous reign of Tim Beckman (affectionately known by some Illini fans and myself as Train Wreckman), former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was brought in to attempt to reverse the damage. His first season at the helm could almost be described as Year -1, similarly to Willie Taggart’s first year in charge of USF. The cupboard was barren in 2016. Wreckman was unable to recruit with any sort of success, leaving Lovie with very little to work with.

Consequently, Lovie’s first season was pretty poor. The Illini walloped Murray State by 49 points, then fell off a cliff. They managed to beat Rutgers (2-10) and an uncharacteristically horrendous Michigan State (3-9). The 2016 Illini were best described as wildly inconsistent on both sides of the ball, and many Illini fans are already looking past this year and towards 2018.

Offense: Last year’s starting QB, senior Wes Lunt, amassed 1,376 yards through the air. That’s about as poor as it gets. For reference, Mike White threw for 1,083 in six games in 2013, in Willie Taggart’s original disaster offense.

Lund’s replacement, for now, seems to be junior Chayce Crouch. Crouch played four games last year, starting only one, and throwing for 249 yards. As far as what to look for, OTE writer Thumpasaurus tells us, “Whoever is the quarterback will certainly be more mobile than Lunt, so expect more option-oriented looks to come from the Fighting Illini.” So far that seems to be holding true,. Crouch was only good for 145 passing yards against Ball State and 107 vs. Western Kentucky.

On the ground, things are slightly clearer. Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin were a solid duo of RBs in 2016. More often than not, they were stuffed at the line (116th in rushing efficiency). But when they got loose, they were as explosive as any of the top attacks in the nation. (USF’s rushing explosiveness ranked 3rd in the nation, and Illinois was 4th). Freshman newcomer Mike Epstein, however, is the back to watch. He only ran for 54 yards against Ball State, but managed to punch in two touchdowns. Against Western Kentucky, he broke 100 yards in a grinding performance.

The offensive line returns three starters, all of whom started as freshmen last year, so there may be some inexperience for USF to take advantage. The WR corps return five, including the massively injury prone Mike Dudek. In his first game in TWO YEARS (after tearing two ACLs, holy crap) he caught two passes for 47 yards and a TD. He’s massively talented and will be a home run threat.

Defense: That D line, tho. They graduated several players, but ranked #9 last year in DL havoc rate. That’s about all the good news on defense, as Illinois’ secondary in 2016 was abysmal at best. Their defense is young, very young. Chances are, the Illini D line will take a few steps back, but their secondary should be improved.

At least that’s what should happen. In the first game this year, Ball State threw for 204 yards and rushed for 171, outgaining the Illini 375-216. The only reason Ball State lost was because of a poorly timed turnover and special teams (we’ll get back to that). The next week against Western Kentucky, Mike White (remember him?) was exceedingly average, throwing for 238 against the young Illinois secondary. His only other significant stat was a pick-6. The Illinois D completely smothered any rushing attack WKU might have had, allowing only 6 yards.

Special Teams: Mike Dudek returned a punt 52 yards late in the game to set up Illinois with the game winning touchdown against Ball State. WKU kicked the hell away from Dudek, and USF would be wise to do the same. Illinois also blocked Ball State’s bid at a game-tying field goal. Watch out for the blocking of kicks. USF seems to have an issue with that.

Kicker Chase McLaughlin is quite good, with the only notable miss on his resume is clanking a 41-yard game-winner off the upright vs Purdue last year (LOL, they lost to Purdue last year). He made 7/8 under-40, and 5/9 over-40 in 2016, earning himself a scholarship in the process.

Blake Hayes seems to be the main punter this year, averaging 46 yards on 4 punts vs Ball State. He averaged 34.7 yards on 7 punts vs WKU.

Etc: Any Bucs fans are going to take this one personally. Lovie Smith’s reign with the Bucs was a fiasco to say the least. There was improvement seen in 2015, sure, but 8-24 over two years will not keep you your job. Chances are he’ll get a longer rope to work with at Illinois, because Illinois has fallen very, VERY far from grace. It’s been forever since Illinois was considered a threat in the B1G, and they’ve become a bit of a joke (See both Off Tackle Empire previews, as linked above)

Last week Illinois kept Western Kentucky in check through the air, hinting at a more dangerous team than anticipated. However, WKU did show that Illinois still has little offense to speak of, as the Illini offense mustered only 13 points. This is a game that USF shouldn’t look past, but can win comfortably if the offense fulfills its potential and avoids turnovers. On D, bottle up the running backs, bottle up the kick/punt returns, and the Illini offense should evaporate faster than Texas’ ranking did after losing to Maryland. But if Q can’t get the air attack working, this might turn into the groundiest and poundiest affair we’ll see this year.