TAMPA, Fla. — No. 22 South Florida feels blessed to be playing again, facing Illinois a week after Hurricane Irma interrupted the Bulls’ season.
The families of first responders are among the people coach Charlie Strong has invited to join the teams for the nationally televised game that’s also a homecoming of sorts for Illini’s Lovie Smith, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
USF (2-0) returns to action after last week’s American Athletic Conference opener at Connecticut was postponed due to Irma, the massive storm that affected communities throughout the Sunshine State.
“First and foremost, just so blessed that we are safe,” said Strong, who’s also opening the gates to Raymond James Stadium to all high school teams in Florida.
“I wake up every day in my world, and it’s just centered around football,” the coach added. “What we went through the past few days puts everything in perspective. It’s more than just football. It’s about us coming together as a community.”
The Bulls hope to fill more seats than usual at Raymond James Stadium while also showing their appreciation for the contributions of first responders, who are being offered up to four tickets apiece.
The Tampa Bay area was not hit as hard as some areas of the state, however Strong said it’s important to remember how others were impacted.
“It’s all about us giving back,” the coach said. “It’s going to take a while (for storm victims to recover), we know that. We just want to make sure people understand that we’re not going through what they’re going through, but we can help them get through what they’re going through.”
Illinois (2-0) can match it victory total for all of last year, Smith’s first at the Big Ten school, who hired the former NFL coach after the Bucs fired him following the 2015 season.
The one-time Chicago Bears coach went 8-24 in two seasons with the Bucs, who like USF, play their home games at Raymond James Stadium.
Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson played most of his NFL career with Tampa Bay, and safeties coach Donnie Abraham is an ex-Buc whose son, Devin, is USF’s co-leader in interceptions with two.
“Playing a ranked opponent … we know a lot about them,” Smith said.
“One of our goals for our season was to start off 3-0,” the Illini coach added, “and now we’re in position to do that.”
Some things to know about the Illini and Bulls:
Strong and Smith are friends who have followed one another careers from afar, with each becoming head coaches after serving as defensive coordinators.
The USF coach, who took over the Bulls this year after being fired at Texas last season, said one of the proudest moments in the business was sitting in the rain at the Super Bowl in February 2007 and watching Smith’s Bears lose to Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts.
“It was very significant because it was two African-American coaches, and as you’re growing up, you never felt like that moment would ever come,” Strong, then Florida’s defensive coordinator, said.
“Now, you get a chance to sit and see it happen right in front of you. It was great,” the USF coach added. “I think the best part of it was they were really good friends. They had a great relationship with one another. You didn’t want to see either one of them lose because of the relationship they had. … I was so happy for both of them.”
Illinois limited Western Kentucky to six yards rushing last week, but faces a formidable task in containing USF dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers, the AAC’s offensive player of the year last season.
The 6-foot, 215-pound senior accounted for 42 touchdowns in 2016, throwing for over 2,800 yards while also ranking in the nation in rushing among quarterbacks behind Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
“He can do it all. It’s documented that he’s a great athlete,” Smith said. “He can run and move the chains with his legs, but he’s an accurate thrower, too. When you’re that type of athlete, you can buy time to be able to get the ball off.”
SENSE OF URGENCY
USF overcame slow starts to win each of its first two games, rebounding from a 16-point deficit to beat San Jose State and playing away late to defeat Stony Brook. With the start to their conference schedule delayed by Hurricane Irma, the Bulls haven’t played in two weeks.
The Bulls are 0-5 against Big Ten teams, losing to Penn State in 2005, Michigan State in 2013, Wisconsin in 2014 and Maryland in 2014 and 2015.