Know the Foe: Illinois

Former East Lake High standout Jake Hansen (35), pursuing a Western Illinois ball carrier, had six tackles for loss in Illinois' season opener against Kent State. (AP Photo/Holly Hart) ILHH112
Published September 11, 2018
Updated September 11, 2018

A look at Illinois, which faces USF on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago

Nickname: Fighting Illini
Record: 2-0. Defeated Kent State, 31-24; defeated Western Illinois, 34-14
Coach: Lovie Smith (third season, 7-19)
Preseason rank: None

The breakdown: The Illini offense, on its third coordinator in four years, enters this off-campus home game depleted and a bit in disarray. In fact, Bulls coach Charlie Strong is preparing his defense for two 6-foot-4 quarterbacks. Senior A.J. Bush, a Virginia Tech transfer, suffered a hamstring injury in the first half against Western Illinois and was replaced by freshman M.J. Rivers. Both can move (178 combined rushing yards), but neither has faced a defense anywhere near as fast as USF's. Additionally, two receivers — senior Mikey Dudek and freshman Edwin Carter — have been lost for the season to knee injuries. Carter had two touchdown catches against WIU. Even when healthy, the up-tempo spread attack installed by new coordinator Rod Smith (a Jim Leavitt staffer at USF from 2001-06) sputtered. Illinois was held to three points in the first 35 minutes against Kent State, and was shut out the first 22 minutes against Western Illinois. If any bright spot has surfaced, it's a run game that has netted 517 yards in two contests. Junior Reggie Corbin (5-10, 200) and senior Mike Epstein (6-0, 200) have combined for 280 yards and four TDs so far. Defensively, seven starters return from a unit that ranked 116th against the run (218.5 ypg) and 85th overall (418.4 ypg) last season. The new starters include third-year sophomore LB Jake Hansen, an East Lake High alumnus who set an Illini single-game record with six tackles for loss against Kent State. Elsewhere, senior LB Del'Shawn Phillips (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL) can be a beast at times, as can 6-5, 255-pound former Largo High star Bobby Roundtree (eight tackles, one TFL).


Odds & ends: In addition to Roundtree and Hansen, the Illini roster also features LB Khalan Tolson (Admiral Farragut). … Illinois is seeking its first 3-0 start since 2011. … The Illini have used 16 true freshmen in their first two contests, and started four in the season opener. Their roster features more true freshmen (32) than juniors and seniors combined (24). … Senior OL Nick Allegretti has made 26 consecutive starts, the longest streak on the team. … Offensive line coach Luke Butkus, a two-time All-American at Illinois during his career (1997-2001), is Dick's nephew.


Audible: "You're looking at two (quarterbacks) that have really good size to 'em…and can run. Then at the running back position, they're playing with two good running backs. Then offensive line-wise, they're big. They're a Big Ten-looking team. Very multiple on defense." — USF coach Charlie Strong

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