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12 Up, 12 Down: Illinois Fighting Illini

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The first away game of the season for the Bulls is against a depleted Illini team.

Kent State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

There’s a lot of trap potential going into this game, fresh off a CLUTCH victory over Georgia Tech in a game that nobody felt comfortable going into.

However, Illinois has faced a lot of adversity recently, and the program is on the long road to recovery. What does the Illini have to offer this Saturday in Soldier Field?

Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

2017 Record: 2–10, 0–9 Big Ten, West Division

Head Coach: Lovie Smith (3rd Season)

Date/Time/Location: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 3:30 ET, Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois

Series History: USF won the first ever meeting last year 47-23.

Current S&P+ Rank: 77

Depth Chart

Background

File Illinois under the list of “storied programs that are not back.” Names like Dick Butkus and Red Grange have graced the field of Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, but the program hasn’t really been seen since 2007 when the Illini made the Rose Bowl (however, they weren’t conference champions. That went to Ohio State, who played in the BCS National Championship)

The disastrous reign of Tim Beckman left Illinois a larger wreck than Skip Holtz left USF, with an investigation into player mistreatment so damaging to the athletic department that former AD Mike Thomas was fired. Lovie Smith got the unenviable job of trying to rebuild the program.

In 2017, the Illini won their first two games vs Ball State and Western Kentucky before dropping the next 10 straight, starting in Tampa to the tune of 47-23. The low point was a 35-24 loss to Rutgers, and ended with a 42-7 demolition at the hands of in-state rival Northwestern.

There was a fair amount of optimism for going into the 2018 season that Illinois would look competitive, with a lot of admission that their record at the end of the year wouldn’t look good. So far, Illinois hasn’t lost. They defeated Kent State 31-24, and Western Illinois 34-14. However, the Illini has been taking other losses....

Offense

Offensive S&P+ Rank: 82

Pour three out for Mike Dudek. I’m dead serious. The star wide receiver suffered his third season-ending knee injury during the season opener vs Kent State, this time likely ending his football career. From a human standpoint, it’s sad to see it end that way for a man who could have been one of their all-time greats.

From a football standpoint, he was their single biggest offensive threat. Not only that, WR Edwin Carter is out for the season following a knee injury he suffered making a spectacular touchdown catch vs. Western Illinois last week.

Starting senior quarterback AJ Bush is questionable to start this Saturday as well following a hamstring issue vs. WIU. Backup QB MJ Rivers II stepped in to throw for 105 yards and two touchdowns last week, both to Carter.

“I think they’re similar,” USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “Both big, strong athletic kids with really good arms. You can see that the OC [former Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith] is as confident in Rivers as he is with Bush as far as moving the offense. I don’t think he changed his playcalling too much…The major difference is Bush is left-handed and Myers is right-handed.”

Senior wide out Sam Mays with led the team in receiving with 42 yards on four receptions while sophomore Ricky Smalling showed himself as a threat against Kent State the week prior, posting 70 yards on three receptions. He’s shifty and showed a burst of speed that the other receivers lack. Unfortunately, he missed last week’s game vs WIU due to an injury, but Smith is optimistic he’ll play.

“I think it’s by committee,” Jean-Mary said of who will replace Dudek as the go-to guy. “I think they have some similar bodies. They have several receivers they seem very comfortable with throwing the ball to. You can tell it’s a group trying to pick themselves up because they have some injuries and young kids that look pretty hungry and trying to get on the field and make a difference some way.”

Where U of I does most of its damage is on the ground. Should Bush be able to go, he’ll come into the contest tied with running back Reggie Corbin as the team’s leading rushers with 142 yards apiece. The junior Corbin also has three rushing scores on the year.

Sophomore tailback Mike Epstein had a coming out party against Western with 105 yards on eight carries last week. If you remember, he ran for 56 yards and TD when the the Illini came down to Tampa a year ago.

On the offensive front, senior right guard Nick Allegretti will make his 27th consecutive start alongside sophomore right tackle Alex Palczewski making his 13th straight start for the Orange Blue. Sophomore left tackle Vederian Lowe, redshirt freshman left guard Kendrick Green, and sophomore center Doug Kramer rounds out the young line.

USF’s struggles against the run are well documented at this point, so the Illini will need to rely heavily on their rushing game to stay in this one.

Defense

Defensive S&P+ Rank: 77

Fortunately for USF, the Illini passing defense is a weakness to exploit. Both Kent State and Western Illinois tallied at least 270 yards through the air. However, Illinois hasn’t allowed much on the ground by only allowing 124 yards per contest. They will be challenged by an increase in the level of athleticism that the the Bulls’ offense possesses.

The Illini defense features an extremely you front four with sophomores Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay on the edges at defensive end and junior Tamir Oliver starting alongside sophomore Jamal Woods at tackle.

From what we’ve seen, the line struggles to generate any pressure without blitzing.

Patrolling the middle of the field is hard-hitting sophomore linebacker Jake Hanson, who tied a school record with six TFL’s versus Kent State. Next to him is senior Del’Shawn Phillips, the only senior in the entire defense.

At nickel is true freshman Sydney Brown, who went to St. Stephens Episcopal School in Bradenton.

Underclassmen Jartavius Martin and Cameron Watkins (who will be sitting out the first half due to a targeting call last week) are the corners while Stanley Green, Michael Marchese, and Delano Ware will rotate at safety. They tend to show a lot of single-high coverage.

Illinois is still allowing over 400 yards a game total. Meanwhile, USF is gaining 470 a game. The difference for Illinois in their first two games was turnovers. Illinois forced five total, while surrendering just one themselves. So far, USF has taken care of the ball. If they can continue to do that, they’ll get their yards and finish drives.

Special Teams

Kicker Chase McLaughlin is a weapon. He’s perfect on extra points and gone 3/4 from beyond 40 yards, with his long sitting at 54.

Punter Blake Hayes also has been doing some work, with a nice season long of 69 yards vs. Kent State.

The kick returning has been a thing that exists and that’s about it. When Dudek went down, Illinois lost their main kickoff return man as well. The duty has fallen to freshman WR Carlos Sandy, whose longest return currently sits at 26 yards off a punt.

Predictions

This could go sideways and give Lovie the signature win he needs to save his job at the end of the year, but it’s really not likely.

Illinois has been extremely slow out of the blocks, scoring only 17 first half points so far this season. That might be all the time USF needs to take over this game, especially seeing how clutch the Bulls were when it came down to the 4th quarter vs Georgia Tech.

The line for this game started at USF -8.5 and has since moved all the way to -10. It’s still a bet I’d take, the Bulls passing attack should simply outclass a ypung, depleted Illinois team. If the Illini were at full strength, I might not take that -10 line, but I’d still favor USF to win. As it stands, Illinois will likely struggle to account for much offense while the USF attack goes to town.

42-14 Bulls cruise.