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Running the Schedule: Illinois

Flowers powered the Bulls past Illinois despite only having one practice because of a hurricane
Flowers powered the Bulls past Illinois despite only having one practice because of a hurricane (AP)

The University of South Florida Bulls head to the Windy City on September 15th, 2018, to visit the Fighting Illini of Illinois. When USF schedule makers penciled in this series, they were likely hoping to beef up the schedule with a quality opponent from a so-called Power 5 conference. For Illinois, it was likely a chance to play a non-conference opponent from an inferior conference which posed little threat.

A year ago to the day, these two teams met on the field for the first time.Both teams were undefeated, 2-0, with Illinois’ wins over Ball State and Western Kentucky, while the Bulls were victors over San Jose State and Stony Brook.USF embarrassed the Illini, 47-23, starting an eight game losing skid for Illinois and doing nothing to add to the Bulls’ strength of schedule.The Fighting Illini will be looking for revenge as they hit the turf of Soldier Field.

Revenge won’t come easy, however. While the Bulls have their own questions about who will fill the record-breaking shoes of former quarterback, Quintion Flowers, the situation in Champaign is far worse.

The last time these teams met, Jeff George Jr., son of former Illini and NFL quarterback, Jeff George, was calling plays. George Jr. had taken the job away from junior quarterback, Chayce Crouch in the USF game. Over the course of the season, they would each play in seven games, totaling 1,716 yards, eight touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. However, both quarterbacks have since left the program. George Jr. is a graduate transfer at Michigan and Crouch has simply left the game of football. Sophomore quarterback, Cam Thomas, is the only scholarship quarterback the Illini have who has actually played with the team, logging 375 yards passing, zero touchdowns, and five interceptions.

There is an upside for Illinois fans. The team led the nation in the number of freshman who got playing time, with 22 of them getting into games. And, the offense is now to be run by Rod Smith, who spent six years as offensive coordinator at Arizona with Rich Rodriguez’ spread offense. Smith was hired by Illinois as offensive coordinator after Arizona parted ways with Rodriguez. Then there’s Thomas, the quarterback who threw five interceptions, but rushed for 79 and 78 yards on ten attempts in back-to-back games against Minnesota and Wisconsin last season. A Rodriguez-style spread offense with a mobile quarterback could be just thing to right the ship for the Illini.

At the recent Big Ten Media Days, head coach, Lovie Smith, promised big results for year three. At the same media event, Illinois was ranked last in the Big Ten West division, receiving the least number of votes of any conference team. In fact, every voter participating in the poll picked Illinois for last place.

If USF figures out their own quarterback problem, they should easily be favored in this game. Illinois finished 2017 ranked 127 (only Charlotte, Kent State, and UTEP were worse) in total scoring offense and 90th in total scoring defense. Their new offensive schemes should produce marked improvements, but even talented teams struggle with new systems.

Kickoff for this matchup is set for 3:30 PM, ET. The game is to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.