CHICAGO — It didn’t come easy for the USF football team on Saturday, but the Bulls were able to knock off another Power-Five team, defeating the Illinois Fighting Illini 25-19 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
USF (3-0) didn’t lead in the game until Blake Barnett found Darnell Salomon for a 50-yard touchdown reception with 2:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bulls scored 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after entering the final 15 minutes trailing by 12 points.
“Some games you get into and you’re just going to have to battle,” coach Charlie Strong said. “This is a lesson well-learned. And it’s a good thing that we came away with a victory. I just love the way we competed there at the end. Two straight weeks we’ve had to battle back there in the fourth quarter.”
Barnett found Salomon twice for scores in the fourth quarter. The first touchdown came within the first 10 seconds of the final period. USF scored about seven minutes later on a Coby Weiss 26-yard field goal to bring the Bulls within two points, setting up Barnett’s game-winning drive.
“It was really similar to last week,” Barnett said. “We, unfortunately, put ourselves in this position where we had to do that — we had to make something happen. Fortunately, like last week, it worked out.”
The Bulls’ defense stepped up to seal the game, sacking Illini quarterback M.J. Rivers three times on the ensuing drive.
Overall, the Bulls’ offense put up 626 yards and 31 first downs. Blake Barnett passed for 411 yards and two touchdowns. Mitchell Wilcox set a new program record for receptions by a tight end with eight for 109 yards.
Despite the great stats, the Bulls trailed for the majority of the game because many drives ended without points.
“A couple of unfortunate penalties,” Wilcox said. “But … we’ve got to put ourselves in a better position than when we get down there — in their end, in their red zone — we’ve got to put six up every time.”
USF committed 14 penalties for 124 yards, with several of them coming at key times that likely cost the Bulls chances at coming away with at least a field goal.
Running back Jordan Cronkrite led all players with 136 total yards and gave USF its only points of the first half— a three-yard rushing touchdown with 7:52 remaining in the first quarter.
“We struggled early on in the game,” Cronkrite said. “We came out flat. Coach Strong even said it.
“I think [the back-to-back comeback wins] show we need to come out faster in the game, come out more aggressive. But it shows how much heart we have as a team. We have no quit in us.”
Defensively, the Bulls bent, but they did not break. The USF defense allowed 212 rushing yards, with 135 of them coming in the first half. Overall, the Bulls’ defense only allowed one touchdown, which came early in the first quarter and was able to hold the Illini to only field goals afterward.
“I didn’t think we came out focused on the ball,” defensive back Ronnie Hoggins said. “Throughout the game, we started to lock in and focus and we came out with the win.”
Special teams were no exception to the struggles USF had. On the game’s opening kickoff, Trent Schneider kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Illini good field position to start the game. Illinois went three-and-out, so the mishap didn’t hurt the Bulls, but it was the first sign of woes for USF’s Australian kicker.
Schneider’s kickoff after USF’s first touchdown of the game also went out of bounds, so back-to-back kickoffs resulted in good field position for the Illini. Additionally, Schneider punted twice for 69 yards, which only averaged out to 34.5 yards a punt.
“He’s nursing a [hamstring] and he pulled it again there during the game,” Strong said.
Former USF men’s soccer goalkeeper Jake Stone, who walked on the football team this summer, replaced Schneider on punts and kickoffs.
It wasn’t just Schneider who struggled kicking. Weiss, who filled in for Jake Vivonetto against Georgia Tech, missed two of his three field goal attempts.
The win marks USF’s sixth straight victory over a Power-Five opponent, with its last loss coming in 2016 against then-No. 13 Florida State. In their last eight games against Power-Five teams, the Bulls are 7-1.
“This program is a sleeper,” linebacker Khalid McGee said. “We have a lot of good athletes on this team, and I feel like we should get a lot more credit for our play.”
Strong says it is important that his team learns from struggles like the Illinois game to succeed.
“You’ve got to learn from it — if you don’t learn from it, it’s not going to help you,” Strong said. “You just hope that coming from two [straight come-from-behind wins] that we’re going to be able to look at the mistakes we made — we’ve got to get them corrected.”