Illinios Fighting Illini (2-0 SU, 1-1 ATS) vs. South Florida Bulls (2-0 SU, 0-2 ATS)
College Football Week 3
Date/Time: Friday, September 15th, 7:00 PM
Where: Raymond James Stadium
By Mike M., NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: ILL +14 / USF -14
Over/Under Total: N/A
Illinois heads south for a Friday night showdown against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in what will be in the first ever matchup between the teams. The Fighting Illini are coming off a win at home against Western Kentucky that put them at 2-0 on the season while South Florida was forced to cancel their home game last week against Connecticut due to Hurricane Irma. All is expected to be ready to go at the stadium for Friday nights game despite Tampa getting struck hard by the storm on Sunday in what was the first time since 1924 that the city was hit by a major hurricane.
After going just 3-9 last year in what was Lovie Smiths first season as the head coach in Champaign, the Fighting Illini have are just a win away from matching last years victory total after starting of their 2017 campaign with a 2-0 record. They escaped at home in week one against Ball State with a 24-21 triumph after blocking a late field goal attempt and than last week shutdown Western Kentucky 20-7 to earn back-to-back wins for the first time since September 2015.
Defensively a lot of their early success can be credited to a dominance against the run, allowing just six total yards on the ground against WKU last week and a total of 177 through two games on 67 carries which averages out to an impressive average of just 2.6 yards per carry. Junior linebackers DelShawn Phillips and Tre Watson have been especially impressive and led the team in tackles through the first two games, and will need to continue their elevated play this weekend against South Florida with multiple defensive starters not expected to play with lead cornerback Jaylen Dunlap injured, linebacker Jake Hansen out for the season and defense end James Crawford suspended indefinitely.
Two players that were not expected to be part of the offensive starting lineup have been thrown into the spotlight and stepped up to the occasion thus far, with junior Chayce Crouch leading the way at quarterback and freshman running back Mike Epstein the surprising head of the backfield after having rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns thru the first two weeks. Crouch has managed games well enough, though he has yet to clear 150 yards passing in a game, and has made quick work in building a connection with lead receivers Malik Turner and Mike Dudek. Unfortunately the injury bug has affected the Illini offense as well, with senior starter at left tackle Jordan Fagan also expected to miss Fridays game along with backup running back Reggie Corbin.
While Illinios has fought their way to two wins despite missing players on both sides, South Florida has been a full strength yet has struggled mightily in their opening week games against inferior competition, beating San Jose State 42-22 and than posting a sluggish 31-17 victory against the all powerful Stony Brook Seawolves of the FBS sub-division. A major issue South Florida has faced is their play early in games, having been outscored 16-0 to start out against San Jose State and just last week being down at the half 10-7 against Stony Brook. Thankfully for the Bulls they have down well to correct themselves from their opening quarter hiccups, having outscored their two opponents 45-3 in the 2nd and 3rd quarters so far this season.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers continues to be the clear center point of the South Florida offense having thrown 398 yards with four touchdowns thrown to four different receivers while running for an additional 137 yards and another score on the ground. Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling remains his favorite target with 10 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown so far this season, while the backfield duo of Darius Thomas and Dernest Johnson both having played equally well as they do their best to replace the schools all time leading rusher Marlon Mack. Though Flowers and the offense clearly have ample talent, they have yet to put together anything resembling a complete game, and with a Power 5 opponent set to visit on Friday, they no longer have an opportunity to find their rhythm after getting a near free pass in the first two weeks against subpar competition.
The South Florida defense has fared similar to the offense, with a halfhearted effort to start the season that has them currently ranked 50th in scoring despite the weaker opponents. It has not been all bad, with the team totaling 5 interceptions so far and only having allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 50% of their passes and running backs to put up an average of under three yards per carry. Much like the Illini, the strength of their defense is in the middle, with senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez the clear star and leader with 16 tackles thus far on the season after having been tops on the team after recording 120 in 2016. With the Illinios skill position trio of Epstein, Dudek and Turner hitting their strides early, the Sanchez Bulls will need to be at their thorough best if they plan on handling their Big Ten opponents as well as the oddsmakers expected.
Despite coming from the more esteemed conference and sporting an undefeated 2-0 record so far, the Fighting Illini find themselves listed as a 14 point underdog against South Florida, but considering their recent play in such situations, its easy to understand why they are getting so many points. In the past nine years Illinios has never won more than a single road game in a season and has put up just a 8-33 away record in that time span, are just 5-11 against the spread in their last 16 games as a road dog, are 3-8 versus the number in their last 11 against teams with a winning record and have lost their last 17 straight games against ranked opponents. Now they find themselves traveling to Florida on a short week with injuries on both sides of the ball and facing a USF team that has had an extra week to plan for them and will be playing in front of a hometown crowd fired up for a televised primetime matchup. South Florida has yet to play a complete game all season, but I expect them to be at their best on Friday and step up against the elevated completion and get the win and cover at home against Illinios.
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