Illinois a “trap game” for Bulls after Georgia Tech win

Coach Charlie Strong and the Bulls beat Illinois last season 47-23, but view this weekend's game as a potential challenge. ORACLE PHOTO/SAM NEWLON

After knocking off ACC-opponent Georgia Tech last Saturday, USF football will face another Power-Five team when it travels to Chicago’s Soldier Field to face the Big Ten’s Illinois Fighting Illini this weekend.

USF beat Illinois 47-23 last season while setting a school record for total yardage against an FBS opponent. Even after a comeback win last week, the Bulls can’t get overconfident, despite the success they had last year against the Illini.

“This is one of those games — I’d call it a trap game,” coach Charlie Strong said. “Just because you can’t let last week’s performance get in the way of preparation for this week. We’re looking forward another challenge — looking forward to just going on the road.”

Saturday’s game marks the second of a two-game home-and-home series between the teams, although the Illini’s home stadium is actually in Champaign, Illinois. The game against USF will be the third game at Soldier Field in six years for the Illini, with the last game coming in 2015 against Northwestern.

“I don’t think there’s any more pressure than any other game we have,” quarterback Blake Barnett said about playing in Chicago. “We have to approach every game the same. Whether we’re home or away, [we] just know that we need to do what we can to prepare that’s going to give us the best opportunity to succeed.”

In 2017, the Illini went 2-10 and were winless in conference play. But it’s a new season, and Illinois comes into this week 2-0 after wins against Kent State and Western Illinois. The Illini scored more points in each of those two games — 31 and 34 respectively — than in any game last season.

“I think it’s going to be a great challenge,” defensive end Josh Black said. “[It will] give us an opportunity to test this defense once again … to see if we can pull up another big win.”

Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. compiled 329 total yards against Kent State, but went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter against Western Illinois. True freshman M.J. Rivers II came in and led the Illini to victory, passing for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s not clear who will get the start for the Illini, though the Chicago Tribune reports that Bush “might” play Saturday.

“I think they’re similar — both big, strong, athletic kids with really good arms,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “You can see [Illinois’] offensive coordinator is as confident in [Rivers] as he was in Bush as far as moving the offense. I don’t think he changed his play calling too much. What may be different is Bush is left-handed and [Rivers] is right-handed.”

Illinois ranks 27th in the nation in rushing yards per game with 258.5. Reggie Corbin leads the Illini with 142 yards and three touchdowns, while fellow running back Mike Epstein has 138 yards and one touchdown.

Defensively, the Illini are averaging 407 yards per game against, with four touchdown passes thrown against through the first two weeks of the season. Linebacker Jake Hansen leads the team with 18 tackles, with six of them coming for losses. Illinois has picked off four opposition passes so far, with all four of them coming from different players.

Illinois has numerous Tampa Bay area connections, both on the sideline and the field.

Illini head coach Lovie Smith is very familiar with teams who call Raymond James Stadium home, having been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ linebackers coach from 1996-2000 and head coach from 2014-2015.

Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson played linebacker for Tampa Bay from 1993-1999. Several other position coaches, including Nickerson, coached under Smith in Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, the Illini feature 22 players from Florida, including seven from the Tampa Bay Area.

The Bulls and Illini kickoff Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast nationally on the Big Ten Network.