Illinois football travels to a stadium that is incredibly familiar to the program and many of those involved with the team: Chicago Illinois’ very own Soldier Field. They make the trip up to Chicago to face the Bulls of the University of South Florida, in a rematch from last year’s non-conference game in which the Illini were thumped by a score of 47 to 23 by a then-ranked USF team.
For one thing, Soldier field has an important place in the history of Illini fans because of the legacy of Illini alumni like George Halas and Harold “Red” Grange, who were so important to the foundations of both Illinois football and the Chicago Bears organization.
Halas was the original founder and owner of the Bears, as well as an Illinois football, basketball, and baseball player. Grange, perhaps the most well-known Illinois player of all time, and ESPN-voted Best NCAAF player of all time, starred for the Bears after his graduation from Illinois.
Perhaps just as relevant to the current Illini team is Head Coach Lovie Smith’s relationship with Soldier Field, one of the most historic NFL Stadiums. Smith was the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears (in case you forgot) from 2004-2012 leading the team to the Super Bowl.
Smith will no doubt have some fond memories, as well as some not-so-fond memories, from the stadium remaining from his time in the NFL, and will lead the Illini into their biggest challenge yet this season against USF.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois had a slightly more comfortable win last week in their matchup against Western Illinois, when they beat the Leathernecks by a score of 34-14 after falling behind by a touchdown early in the game (for the second week in a row.)
Illinois starting Quarterback A.J. Bush went off with a minor injury mid-way through the game, being replaced by true Freshman M.J. Rivers, who starred for the Illini for the rest of the game, finishing with one of Pro Football Focus’ highest QB passer ratings, tallying up 105 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air, and 36 yards on the ground.
The Illini offense also saw big games from RB Mike Epstein, who has starred in his playing time thus far, who ran the ball eight times for 105 yards. Epstein has starred in limited playing time for the Illini after having a breakout season last year before getting hurt. The Illinois run game will be pivotal if the Illini are to leave Chicago with a win against a very solid USF team, but I’ll have more on that later.
University of South Florida Bulls
The USF Bulls are coming off wins versus Elon and Georgia Tech. They beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets last week by a score of 49-38. The teams fought a high-scoring game in which teams scored 14 points or more in a quarter two times each.
USF QB Blake Barnett led the Bulls into the game, and walked out with a win after passing for two touchdowns, and running for another two. Barnett completed 21 of 31 passes and threw for 202 yards with one interception. Barnett is a good passer in the pocket, with the ability to break down secondaries if given time. More on him later, as well. The game wasn’t exactly impressive when you consider the impressive talent that resides on USF’s roster, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the top performance of the year for the Bulls. They’re coming out of a tough game against Georgia Tech, after beating Elon by 20 points the week before.
Keys Players: USF
Blake Barnett, QB
USF’s Barnett was a top-rated quarterback coming out of high school, rated as the nation’s No. 1 pocket passer-style QB, and a consensus five-star prospect.
He signed with Alabama out of high school, and redshirted his first season in 2015. The following year in the 2016 season, he played in three games for the Crimson Tide, starting one game. He completed 11-of-19 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns that season, before he was replaced by Jalen Hurts in the game against USC.
Barnett then transferred to Arizona State before the 2017 season, where he played in four games for the Sun Devils. He has two years of eligibility left for the Bulls.
Barnett has the opportunity and skills to give a young, depleted Illinois secondary a very tough time on Saturday, if he plays well, and if his offensive line can buy him some time in the backfield. The Illinois defense will be without several key starters this week, as far as we know, due to the suspension of players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs, two starters.
The Illini have also been burned by QBs when playing otherwise-solid defense in coverage, due to the defensive line not being able to close holes, but the secondary will have to lock down Barnett in the passing game before even beginning to worry about that. Barnett is a solid pocket passer, with a good throwing arm, and will without a doubt test the coverage-skills of the secondary.
The Illinois secondary has struggled thus far in the season, with the exclusion of a few stand-out individual performances, and will be up against their toughest QB opposition yet in Barnett.
Ronnie Hoggins, CB
The USF defense was picked apart last week by the Georgia Tech offense, in a game where USF faced their first true defensive test of the season, after giving up 14 points to Elon in week one of their season.
USF’s defense comes into this year with a lot of experience, and second-year coach Charlie Strong, formerly the head coach at Texas, will feel that once the group has fully gelled, they will be a solid defensive unit.
Ronnie Hoggins, a senior, comes into this season as the USF defense’s leader. Hoggins comes into this game with 30 starts under his belt for the Bulls, and the experience of playing both the boundary corner spot and the nickel spot.
Hoggins is a speedy cornerback, with seven career interceptions. When watching game-tape of Hoggins, it’s also not hard to see that the cornerback, who comes in at just a hair under 5’9” according to most sites, possesses a leadership trait and swagger that isn’t quite matched by anyone on his team.
Hoggins has 5 solo tackles to go along with assists on 4 other tackles last week against Georgia Tech, and will be a big, experienced challenger to go up against speedy Illini wide receivers like Carlos Sandy and Dominic Stampley.
He will have to be solid in pass coverage, and in run defense, if they are to hold the Illini offense to less points than what Georgia Tech put up last year.
The Illinois offense is far from what Hoggins and USF defended against last year, and the young Illini offense be hoping that they can use their new scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith to take advantage of the USF defense’s struggles from last week.
Key Players: Illinois
Mike Epstein, RB
Epstein hasn’t been used a lot this year, and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by even the casual Illinois Football fan. The sophomore back came into last year as a 3-star recruit, and the 58th overall ranked running back in the nation according to Scout. Epstein came onto the big stage at memorial stadium and dazzled crowds almost immediately.
Epstein hails from Florida, and will be looking to perform against the opposition from his home-state. Last year, Epstein played in five games as a freshman, and started three, before getting injured and missing the final seven games of the season.
Against USF last year, Epstein had eight carries for 56 yards, with one resulting in a touchdown. He added to that with two receptions for 27 yards and another touchdown. Epstein was one of the lone, effective offensive players on the Illini last year as they were badly beaten by the Bulls.
USF gave up _____ yards in last week’s game against Georgia Tech, and the Illini have the ____ ranked offense in the NCAA so far this year. Illinois will no doubt look to break open the running lanes early against the Bulls, but it could prove a challenge as USF Head Coach Charlie Strong will no-doubt be preparing for such an attempt.
Epstein may see a bigger role than in previous games, as it is a far more important game to this Illinois team than the previous two. He has shined in the roles he has been given thus far, and has averaged almost nine yards per carry over his 16 carries, an impressive tally. Epstein will be backed up by a solid running back stable comprised of solid runners like Reggie Corbin, who has three rushing touchdowns already this season.
Bobby Roundtree, DL
Bobby Roundtree, and the rest of the Illinois defensive line, if I’m honest, were noticeably lacking in presence in the Illini opener against Kent State two weeks ago. The Illinois defense only tallied up one sack in the game against the Golden Flashes, with 12 tackles for loss.
The defensive line really picked up the pace the follow Saturday against Western Illinois, tripling their sack total from the previous week, and adding on seven tackles for loss as a team. Roundtree threw in one sack in addition to those of Jamaal Woods and Isaiah Gay. The defensive line was visibly better in their week two matchup against the Leatherbacks, and will look to build off a strong game against a talented South Florida offense.
Roundtree’s athleticism, as well as that of his line partner Isaiah Gay, will be much needed in the game at Soldier Field. USF will put out all the stops in order to beat their biggest opponent thus far this year, and a Power-5 Conference team. Blake Barnett isn’t quite as athletic as last year’s USF QB Quinton Flowers, but he is still a runner, just as much as a pocket passer. Should Barnett get forced out of the pocket, his eyes will be looking downfield, and he will look to take off running.
Roundtree and Gay are the athletic pieces that Illinois will need to ensure Barnett stays inside of his pocket. IF they win their one on one matchups right off the bat, they will give the Illini defense a much better chance at containing what, to this point, has been a dynamic offense from USF. Ensuring Barnett stays in the pocket will give the Illini secondary the chance to make plays, and will give the Illini a fighting chance at a defensive victory.
This is without a doubt the toughest challenge that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will still be missing key players like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Louis Dorsey to suspension.
I think this is going to be a tough game for the Illini to pull out a win in, but I think that the defense continues it’s up-trend in performance, and does just enough to allow the rapidly-improving Illinois offense to take the game for the Illini. Staying true to my predictions earlier in the year, I think that the Illini come out of Soldier Field with a win here.
It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini defense, but I think the Illini will be up to the task against Charlie Strong’s Bulls. To me, Illinois walks away with a stand-out performance from its offense, and come away with close win, 34-31.
Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as the big, upcoming Illini Basketball recruiting weekend.