Big-Game Hunting: Illini take another crack at USF in Soldier Field rematch
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How was Bobby Roundtree supposed to feel? He was one of 10 true freshmen — five on each side of the ball — who started for Illinois in a hopeless 47-23 defeat last September at South Florida. He was dehydrated on the field and required an IV at halftime.
As the Bulls’ offense rolled up massive totals of 680 yards and 38 first downs, Roundtree, a defensive end from the Tampa area, tried not to think of the 40 or so family members and friends in the stands at Raymond James Stadium.
‘‘It was tough,’’ he said. ‘‘That was my third college game. I was burned out, tired.’’
The Illini entered that game with a 2-0 record and ended the season — coach Lovie Smith’s second at the helm — at 2-10. As we get ready for the USF at Illinois rematch Saturday at Soldier Field (2:30 p.m., BTN, 104.3-FM), with both teams again at 2-0, the question hangs in the air: Is this another hopeless scenario for the Illini?
Heck no, they say. They’re 10-point underdogs who’ve changed so much that they might be able to turn the tables on the Bulls and spring the biggest upset the program has seen since at least 2016.
‘‘We’re just more committed to what we’re doing, more prepared,’’ senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips said.
Roundtree calls the Illini more ‘‘focused’’ and ‘‘locked in.’’ Defensively, they’ll have to be against an opponent that has rolled up more than 400 yards in 12 consecutive games. Quarterbacked by former Alabama five-star recruit Blake Barnett, the Bulls are versatile and potent. They also have special-teams demon Terrence Horne, who ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns last weekend against Georgia Tech.
Don’t try to entice Smith into a conversation about returning to the home of his former team, the Bears.
‘‘I’ve been to Chicago a lot of times since then,’’ he said.
He hasn’t had a big victory there in quite a while, though. If his team were healthier — starting quarterback AJ Bush’s status is up in the air — an upset would be more imaginable. As it stands, USF wins 34-20.
Now let’s fire through the biggest games of Week 3:
No. 4 Ohio State (-13) vs. No. 15 TCU (7 p.m., Ch. 7) in Arlington, Texas: Still no Urban Meyer for the Buckeyes, who look to get to 3-0 without their suspended superstar coach. This is the one true test for acting head coach Ryan Day and his team.
‘‘They’re all big,’’ Day said. ‘‘Every game, you’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be prepared and do a great job. When you come to Ohio State and you play at the highest level of college football, you have to bring your ‘A’ game every week.’’
Some weeks are tougher — much tougher — than others. Horned Frogs in a giant upset.
No. 12 LSU (+10) at No. 7 Auburn (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Too much wicked defense from the Tigers. Wait, which Tigers? Aubie gets to 3-0 in a tight one and positions itself — again — as the SEC West’s top threat to Alabama.
No. 17 Boise State (+2½) at No. 24 Oklahoma State (2:30 p.m., ESPN): First team to 600 yards of offense wins? Both are averaging better than that number. The more impressive quarterback has been Boise’s Brett Rypien, nephew of former Super Bowl champion Mark Rypien. Broncos get it done.
No. 10 Washington (-6) at Utah (9 p.m., ESPN): The Utes have been so close to breaking through against the Huskies, falling by a touchdown at home in 2016 and just a field goal last season in Seattle. Crank the tension meter to 10, baby: Huskies 28, Utes 27.
My favorite favorite: No. 1 Alabama (-21) at Mississippi (6 p.m., ESPN). The Rebels beat the Tide back-to-back in 2014 and 2015 and fell in an instant classic — 48-43 — in 2016. Then came last season, when it was 66-3. See last season.
My favorite underdog: BYU (+22) at No. 6 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). The Cougars have played a pair of Pac-12 foes down to the wire, beating one and losing to the other. Tanner Mangum is a talented quarterback. He keeps it close-ish.
Last week: 5-2 straight up; 3-4 against the spread.
Season to date: 8-4 straight up; 5-7 against the spread.
VANDERBILT AT NO. 8 NOTRE DAME
The facts: 1:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.
The records: Vanderbilt 2-0, Notre Dame 2-0.
The storyline: This is no cakewalk for the Irish. Vandy has one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in Kyle Shurmur (son of New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur), a 30-game starter, and a well-balanced offense that includes former Illinois running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Will Irish QB Brandon Wimbush clean up his own play? Will Brian Kelly’s defense create enough pressure on Shurmur to keep him uncomfortable?
The line: Irish by 14.
Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 31-20.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS
The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN+, 560-AM.
The records: Central Michigan 0-2, NIU 0-2.
The storyline: It’s hard to have a handle on the Huskies, who’ve lost to a pair of very tough opponents — Iowa and Utah. NIU will have a much better chance to establish itself offensively, especially in the running game, against the Chippewas. So, what to make of the Chips’ blowout loss at home to Kansas last weekend? The Jayhawks snapped a 46-game road skid in that one, and did it easily. It certainly seems like a strong hint that the Huskies will be OK in this one.
The line: Huskies by 14.
Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 38-13.
AKRON AT NORTHWESTERN
The facts: 6:30 p.m., BTN, 720-AM.
The records: Akron 1-0, NU 1-1.
The storyline: Since the start of the second half of the opener at Purdue, the Wildcats’ offense has been a mess. A game against a MAC foe is just what the doctor ordered, right? Then again, if the Cats struggle to move the ball, it’ll hammer home just how much trouble they’re in. No matter how extensively quarterback Clayton Thorson plays, the key will be the blocking up front. Get the running game going, and the rest will take care of itself.
The line: Wildcats by 21.
Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 26-14.