CHAMPAIGN, Ill. • The Illini have been champing at the bit.
Defensive back Stanley Green has been waiting for a chance for the Illinois football team to avenge last season’s 47-23 loss at the hands of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.
Illinois’ defense was exposed, allowing 680 yards of total offense to the Bulls on national television.
“We’ve had this game circled on the calendar since the end of the season,” Green said. “This is a game that left us with a bad taste in our mouths. There’s a lot of motivation coming into this game. We need to put on a better show.”
This time, the game will be played at Solider Field in Chicago on Saturday afternoon and the Illini defense won’t have to focus on stopping quarterback Quinton Flowers, who put up 386 total yards last year.
He has departed, leaving South Florida (2-0) with Blake Barnett, who started at Alabama, then went to Arizona State before taking the helm of the Bulls’ up-tempo offense.
Barnett is more of a pure passer than Flowers was, but he can run, too. He’s rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns to go along with is 507 passing yards and five scores this season.
“This year, the quarterback is mobile enough to run, but he would describe himself as a passer who will occasionally run,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “The rest of the attack is the same thing — the same coaches in place. We know what we’re getting. Receiver-wise I think this is as good a blocking group as we will play against.”
The secondary for the Illini will be without Cameron Watkins for the first half, because he was ejected from last week’s game for targeting.
Tony Adams is “close” to returning from an injury that has cost him the first two games of the season, and safety Delano Ware did not play last week against Western Illinois.
It remains to be seen if defensive backs Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will return from their indefinite suspensions.
The young secondary will be tasked with slowing an offense that averages 284 passing yards. Through two games, Illinois has allowed 282.5 yards per game through the air.
“Flowers was a huge run threat and trying to get close to him or get him on the ground was an issue,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “We won’t quite see that this year, but what Barnett brings is the ability to put the ball down the field and put it down the field with accuracy.”
Green is a member of the team who traveled to Tampa last season in the Bulls’ rout of the Illini.
The veterans of the team, specifically the defense, have told younger players to be honest about their fatigue. Last year, Green said, the Bulls had the Illini gassed, “with our tongues hanging out of our mouth,” in hot Florida conditions.
“When you’re tired out there on the field, you want to be out there to make a play, but you’re tired,” Green said. “Coach talks about when you’re tired you’re going to do half of what you can do. There’s no point in being tired on the field. I think we understand that.”
Starting quarterback AJ Bush Jr. left last week’s game against Western Illinois because of a hamstring injury, and freshman M.J. Rivers II stepped in and helped lead the Illini to a victory.
The Illini are hopeful that Bush can return against South Florida, and offensive coordinator Rod Smith said if Bush is healthy, he’s the team’s starting quarterback.
But South Florida coach Charlie Strong said he’s ready for anything.
“They lose their quarterback, then they come back with Rivers,” Strong said. “Now, just at the quarterback position you’re looking at guys with good size to them — they’re like 6-3, 6-4 and can run. They can use their legs to beat you and can throw the ball.”
Against Western, the Illini started Sam Mays, Justice Williams and Trenard Davis at receiver.
Ricky Smalling is “very close” to returning after missing last week’s game. Mikey Dudek and Edwin Carter have been lost for the season because of knee injuries and Carmoni Green is among the five suspended players, along with tight end Louis Dorsey.
The South Florida defense allows 112.5 passing yards per game, but has allowed 305.5 rushing yards per game, including 419 in last week’s win over Georgia Tech.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast, they’re athletic,” Rod Smith said. “If you like that kind of player, then you would like them.
“They’re really good. They’re the most athletic team we’ve played so far this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the most athletic team we play for the most part this year.”
There’s one more task for the Illini: Slow down speedy South Florida return man Terrence Horne.
The freshman has two kick returns for touchdowns — one of 98 yards and one of 97 yards — last week. Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin has 13 kickoffs and 12 have gone for touchbacks.
“I think we’ve done a great job of kicking directionally and getting touchbacks,” Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin said. “If we can get up there in the wind and get touchbacks, that will help us keep the ball out of his hands. If not, then we’ll have to gameplan for it.”
Lovie Smith wasn’t shying away from the fact that this game carries a lot of meaning for his team with Big Ten play beginning Sept. 21 at home against Penn State.
“South Florida really got after us last year,” Smith said. “We did not show up and play good football in all three phases. We are given another opportunity to play better football and compete a lot better than we did last year.”