Lovie Smith's return to Tampa didn't go very well.
His current team was throttled in his former team's home stadium, Illinois getting trucked by a ranked South Florida team in a 47-23 loss at the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Illini weren't favored coming into this one, and there couldn't have been too many onlookers expecting much as a team that looked sluggish during a 2-0 start was up against one of the top 25 teams in the country, a squad many are predicting will be "the" Group of Five team this season. USF looked much better in nearly every way Friday night, out-gaining Illinois by a whopping 680-354 margin.
Think about that. A Big Ten defense was scorched for nearly 700 yards by a team from the American Athletic Conference. It's not a perfect comparison given the high quality of this South Florida offense — which has now scored a combined 120 points in its three wins this season — and the youth of this Illinois team. The Illini started 10 true freshmen on Friday night, breaking the previous program high of seven, which was set just last week.
While USF kept with its 2017 tradition of starting games somewhat slowly, Illinois was much, much slower. The Bulls carved up the Illini defense at nearly every turn, only ahead by modest totals at times during the first half thanks to a pair of blocked kicks and an interception. But with a buzzer-beating touchdown to end the first half, USF rolled up a 23-9 lead at halftime and sprinted out to a 37-9 advantage after three quarters. With the final 15 minutes counting as garbage time, Illinois outscored USF 14-10 in the fourth quarter, making the final score only slightly closer.
But this was a complete romp. USF star quarterback Quinton Flowers dominated with 386 total yards and five total touchdowns, four coming through the air. Flowers was one of three South Florida rushers to go over 100 yards on the night.
As for the Illini, they didn't do much offensively, possessing the ball for roughly half the time the Bulls did. With Illinois behind by a whole bunch most of the evening, Mike Epstein received just eight carries, gaining 56 yards on the ground. He did add 65 receiving yards, including a 21-yard touchdown reception from Jeff George Jr. George threw two picks but had far more success throwing the ball than starting quarterback Chayce Crouch, completing 12 of his 22 passes for 211 yards and the touchdown to Epstein.
Both teams were penalized like crazy: Illinois committed 15 penalties for 138 yards, while South Florida was flagged 16 times for 155 yards.
The pounding dropped Illinois to 2-1 on the season as non-conference play came to a close in the Sunshine State. It's a respectable mark considering the Illini were predicted to drop this game back in the preseason. They have a bye week next week before opening league play with back-to-back games against division rivals: home against Nebraska and a trip to Iowa.
Illinois' youth still remains the biggest storyline of the young season. The team's 10 true freshman starters were additionally a high for an entire season, and Friday's game featured five true freshmen starting on defense for the first time in program history.
No matter what you think of the Illini's 2-1 record, their play has left much to be desired. That being said, Smith is transforming this program with his young players, a sign that the guys he's recruited give the team a better chance to win than the ones who were here when he arrived, and the evolution and development of these young players will be interesting to watch over the course of the season.