TAMPA -- It was unknown where -- or if -- No. 22 South Florida's scheduled home game against Illinois on Friday night would be held in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
But on Tuesday morning, USF announced that it was clear to host the game as planned, and it was with a sigh of relief that coach Charlie Strong began his press conference a couple of hours later by saying, "First and foremost, we're just so blessed that we're safe."
"Everything we've been through the past few days just put everything in perspective," he added. "It's more than just football. It's about us coming together as a community."
The anticipation of Hurricane Irma was enough to cancel the Bulls' game at Connecticut last week. lllinois had offered to host the game on their campus if necessary.
From a football perspective, this is a big game for the Bulls, who haven't looked sharp while winning at San Jose State and against FCS Stony Brook. The matchup against Illinois is their only game against a Power Five conference opponent as they make a case to be considered for a big bowl at the end of the season.
"We haven't played a complete game yet," Strong said.
"It really is a national stage for us. It is going to be a big audience. It is going to be good for this football team. Now, we can get a good focus and get locked in on this game and go play."
Friday's game is a juicy homecoming for Illinois coach Lovie Smith, who spent two years in Raymond James Stadium as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, going 8-24 and getting fired after the 2015 season. Smith was also a Bucs assistant, so a win against a ranked opponent would carry some weight personally.
The Illini are off to a 2-0 start after going 3-9 in Smith's first season -- they pulled out a 24-21 win against Ball State, getting the winning touchdown with 2:06 left and blocking a field goal as time expired; they had an easier time with a 20-7 win against Western Kentucky, holding the Hilltoppers to just six rushing yards while piling up 193 with their own ground game.
Freshman Mike Epstein, who had the winning touchdown against Ball State after a 52-yard Mike Dudek punt return, rushed for 111 yards against WKU. The true freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has 165 rushing yards in two games.
"Mike Epstein continues to be Mike Epstein; it's how he's been since he got on campus," Smith said.
Quarterback Chayce Crouch hasn't been impressive, completing 22 of 44 passes for 252 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dudek, returning from missing the past two seasons because of torn ACLs, has been a bright spot, with a team-high eight catches.
A win by Illinois would give them momentum going into a bye week before they open nine straight weekends of Big Ten play with a Sept. 29 opener at home against Nebraska.
"They have a lot of starters returning," Smith said of USF. "A lot of people are going to talk about the offense, but they have a lot of defensive starters returning. Last year they took the ball away a lot of times; just a big challenge."
Slow starts have been a problem for the Bulls. They trailed 16-0 to San Jose State before rallying quickly for a 42-22 win in their opener, then trailed Stony Brook 10-7 in the third quarter before pulling out a 31-17 victory at home.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers, touted as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate entering the season, has been ordinary -- 398 passing yards and four touchdowns against two lesser opponents, with another 137 yards and a score running the ball.
The Bulls have split duties at running back between D'Ernest Johnson (114 yards, two TDs) and Darius Tice (151 yards, three TDs), but neither has made USF fans forget about Marlon Mack, now off in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
For so long, USF was known for pulling off big wins against major-conference opponents, but after a 2011 win against Notre Dame, the Bulls lost 12 straight non-conference games against Power Five opponents.
They're 3-1 in the last four such games, with a pair of wins against Syracuse and a bowl win last year over South Carolina, along with a loss to Florida State.
A win against Illinois helps validate USF's national ranking, but Smith knows there is more at play Friday night. He said he wanted to invite all high schools teams (who might not be able to play this week) and first responders and their families to the game.
"Just invite everyone to the game," Strong said.
"It's all about us just giving back. We just want to make sure people understand that while we're not going through what they're going through, we can help them get through what they're going through. ... Now, we have a way to give back to the community and give back in a really good way."
Game on: No. 22 USF hosts key Friday night game
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