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10 Moments that Defined Illinois Football: Illinois Takes USF to the Wire

The Illini fought hard against a talented USF squad at Soldier Field.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The season was still young as the undefeated Illini squad traveled up I-57 to Soldier Field for their toughest matchup of the season up to that point with the USF Bulls.

Illinois led three quarters of this game, as a touchdown from Mike Epstein and four field goals from Chase McLaughlin had Illinois up 19-7 going into the fourth quarter. But that’s when things started to fall apart for the Illini, as USF’s offense finally came alive and put up 18 points in the final quarter to give USF a 25-19 advantage.

Down to their last drive and with 2:24 left on the clock, MJ Rivers and the Illini weren’t going down without a fight. Rivers completed passes to Ricky Smalling, Trenard Davis, Mike Epstein and Daniel Barker as Illinois marched down to the USF 25-yard-line. With one play left, the freshman Rivers launched a pass downfield to Smalling for the would-be game winning score.

Alas, the pass connected with Smalling past the back of the endzone and the game came to an end (maybe?).

Even with the loss, this game demonstrated that the Illini were now able to compete with good teams. Illinois kept the momentum going into the next game against Penn State, taking a 24-21 lead into halftime.

But that game against Penn State also clearly showed the other defining feature of the 2018 Illini, as they gave up 42 unanswered points to the Nittany Lions through mistakes and defensive breakdowns. This habit of giving up massive amounts of points late started to show itself in the USF game, and unfortunately plagued the Illini all year.

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