CHAMPAIGN — All eyes figure to be on the quarterback Friday night when Illinois takes on No. 22 South Florida.
The South Florida quarterback, that is.
Quinton Flowers, the make-you-miss magician running the South Florida offense, is included on a number of Heisman Trophy Watch lists. The senior from Miami can do it all and has proven it over time.
Last season, when he passed for 24 touchdowns and ran for 18 more, he was the American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year.
But it’s the other quarterback — Illinois’ Chayce Crouch — who has something to prove when these teams meet at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (6 p.m., ESPN).
Crouch has mostly sputtered trying to get the Illini passing attack off the ground. He has completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The inability to throw the ball downfield has kept the offense moving at a slow pace.
It’s not all Crouch’s fault. All five starting positions on the offensive line changed from the opener against Ball State to the second game against Western Kentucky. Instability on the offensive line, especially when two of the new starters are true freshmen, hasn’t made Crouch’s life easy.
And while no one questions his toughness running the ball, he has seemed a bit like a bull in a china shop trying to bring finesse and accuracy to the passing game.
“Early in the season you’re working through things to find out who you are,” head coach Lovie Smith said this week.
He pointed to the successful drive Illinois mounted to open the second half against Western Kentucky. With Crouch at the controls, the offense marched 84 yards in 15 plays, capped off with Crouch’s dramatic nine-yard touchdown run, a play in which he went airborne at the three-yard line and landed upside down in the end zone.
But it was a slow, methodical drive that included just three short passes, two of them to Crouch’s favorite target, Mike Dudek.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee implied that Crouch needs to expand his field of vision.
“Chayce did a lot better than he did the first week,” McGee said. “He made some mistakes, but his decision-making in that zone read type of play was 100 percent, where he had some issues the first game.
“He stood in the pocket in third down while they were trying to deliver cross blitzes to run him out of the pocket. He stood in there and delivered the ball.
“His next step is just looking at the defense, not looking at his roommate all the time. He spends a lot of time looking at No. 18 (Dudek), which is not a bad thing, but the defense should dictate where you throw the ball.”
It’s also worth noting that Crouch has started exactly three games in his career. So he’s learning on the fly, too.
Crouch knows there’s room for much improvement.
“I think I’m settling in well,” he said. “The first week I didn’t stay in the pocket as much. This time I stood in there and took some hits as I was making throws. That was an area of growth, staying in the pocket and giving my receivers more time to get open.”
Crouch gave himself high marks for his acrobatic hurdle into the end zone.
“I know how to handle myself now,” he said. “Last year I was flipping and landing on my head. This year I felt like I knew what I was doing. I dove over the defender and landed on my back. Maybe some people held their breath but I wasn’t worried about it.”
Even if Illinois’ defense plays well Friday, the offense is likely to be called on to light up the scoreboard.
In its last 19 games, the fewest points South Florida has scored is 30. That makes Crouch’s ability to throw the ball all the more important.