Facing a third-and-20 situation, South Florida junior quarterback Blake Barnett found junior Darnell Salomon uncovered deep down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown with 2:24 left to give the Bulls a 25-19 nonconference victory over Illinois on Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field in Chicago.
USF (3-0) trailed 19-7 entering the fourth quarter, but Barnett and Salomon hooked up for two scores and sophomore kicker Coby Weiss added a 26-yard field goal as the Bulls finally started converting on their perpetual trips inside Illinois’ 40-yard line.
Barnett completed 23 of 40 passes for 411 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Junior running back Jordan Cronkrite rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown while Salomon finished with five catches for 95 yards, junior tight end Mitchell Wilcox caught eight passes for 109 yards and freshman Randall St. Felix posted six receptions for 120 yards.
Senior kicker Chase McLaughlin drilled four field goals for Illinois (2-1), which missed a chance for its first 3-0 record since 2011. After USF took the lead with 2:24 left, freshman quarterback MJ Rivers Jr. drove Illinois to the Bulls’ 15-yard line but his pass to sophomore Ricky Smalling went beyond the end zone as time expired.
Rivers finished 20 of 29 for 168 yards in his first start while sophomore running back Mike Epstein rushed for 113 yards and caught fiive passes for 56 yards. Junior running back Reggie Corbin added 98 rushing yards.
USF entered the game ranked 125th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense with 305.5 yards allowed per game. With Rivers making his first start because senior AJ Bush (hamstring) couldn’t go, Illinois rode the running game early as Epstein raced 43 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead just 4:06 into the game.
USF answered on its next possession with Cronkrite’s 3-yard touchdown blast to make it 7-7, but McLaughlin was the only one to put points on the board over the next 37-plus minutes. He nailed kicks of 26, 46, 53 and 41 yards to give Illinois a 19-7 lead with 2:56 left in the third.
The most crucial of those came in the final seconds of the first half. With USF nearing field-goal range, senior linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips intercepted a pass and raced 34 yards to the Bulls’ 46-yard line with eight seconds left. Rivers fired a quick 11-yard strike to freshman tight end Daniel Barker to set up McLaughlin’s 53-yard field goal as time expired to take a 16-7 halftime lead.
McLaughlin added a 41-yarder in the third quarter that he banked off the right upright, but USF finally broke through as Barnett lofted a 14-yard touchdown pass to Salomon on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 19-14 and trigger the comeback.
—Field Level Media