With Irma behind them, Bulls ready for Illinois

Friday night’s game will be the first meeting between Illinois and USF in history. THE ORACLE/CHAVELI GUZMAN

After the passing of Hurricane Irma and the consequential damage it caused throughout the state of Florida, USF players and coaches are eager to start playing football again.

When all school activities were suspended last Thursday, the Bulls’ practices came to a halt as well. With Hurricane Irma projected to hit Tampa as a Category 4 storm at the time, the team canceled it’s game scheduled for Sept. 9 against Connecticut to allow players, coaches and team personnel to be with their families when Irma hit.

Now, already on a short week with a Friday night game scheduled, the Bulls have only three days to prepare for their biggest test of the 2017 season — Illinois, a Big Ten opponent and the Bulls’ only power-5 conference regular season opposition of the season.

Despite the hardships that accompany short preparation time, coach Charlie Strong said he is grateful for the tireless efforts of the individuals that kept the city safe and secure during the storm more than anything.

“We’re just so blessed that we’re safe,” Strong said Tuesday. “I wake up everyday and my world is just centered around football, but what we went through the last few days really put everything into perspective. It’s more than just football; it’s about us coming together as a community.

“You look at the first responders, the police department, sheriff’s department, the firemen, the medical staff, look all the volunteers at the shelter, our military involved… Everybody just got involved to make this a safe community so if anything were to happen, we’d be able to get back on track.”

With 91.7 percent of USF’s roster composed of players from Florida, safety was the number one concern in preparing for Irma, not future football games.

“You kind of stop, and you say hey, football, you have to be put aside here, there’s some other things just a little more important,” Strong said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Some of the guys when we called the game at Connecticut, they kind of got upset and said, ‘C’mon coach, we gotta go and play.' I said no-no guys, there’s things more important than going and playing that football game right now. 

“We can make that game up, but if something happened here, we couldn’t make that up.”

After the storm passed early Monday morning. no players reported major home damage to Strong. The Bulls resumed practice for the first time in five days on Tuesday. After assessing damage in and around Tampa, it was officially announced Monday that USF will play Illinois in Raymond James Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m., as scheduled.

Illinois, led by former Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith, is 2-0 this season and are coming off a 3-9 season in Smith’s first year as head coach in 2016. So far, the Fighting Illini have fielded 17 true freshmen in 2017.

“We know they’re a 2-0 football team and they’re going to come in there tough on Friday night,” Strong said. “You look at the two wins that they’ve had, and even with the Western Kentucky win, they played very well offensively.

“They’re led by their quarterback Chayce Crouch, a really good receiver in Malik Turner and their offensive line is solid with a couple of young guys up front and defensively that do a lot of things… They mix it up a lot and run a really good blitz package.”

Crouch, a junior, has thrown more interceptions (2) than touchdowns (1) in 2017, while junior linebacker DelShawn Phillips has lead the defense with 22 tackles this season.

Smith, who owns a home in Tampa, had his players preparing for Friday’s game as normal, according to The News Gazette (Champaign, Illinois), despite speculation that the game could be canceled.

The Bulls, meanwhile, will only have Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to prepare for the game, but Strong has a solution for the shortened time for game planning.

“You look at us last week, we didn’t get to play that game, so now we take last week and some of the things we were going to use game plan wise and we’re just going to take them into this week,” Strong said. “You’re right, we only have three days to prepare, but our guys want to go in there and play and I know It’s been hard to sit for two weeks.”

Despite not playing last week, USF remains No. 22 in the Associated Press’ poll and at the top of the AAC power rankings.

To give thanks for their hard work throughout Irma, Strong said Tuesday that all first responders and their families (no more than four people per party) will be admitted free Friday night, along with the players and coaches of any high school football team in the state who want to come.

“It’s all about whose been impacted by the storm,” Strong said Tuesday. “You want (to win) because now we have a way to give back to the community and give back in a really good way, where they have a chance to watch our football team.”

For more information on how to obtain the complimentary tickets, fans can go to gousfbulls.com.