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Illinois drops heartbreaker to South Florida in Chicago, 25-19

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Illinois takes its first loss of the season.

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

CHICAGO, Ill. — What’s the saying? “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades?’ Illinois was close, but Lovie Smith couldn’t pull off his first major non-conference win Saturday afternoon.

After dominating much of the first three quarters, it was all Blake Barnett in the fourth. The grad-transfer QB single-handedly willed South Florida back into Saturday’s game at Soldier Field, defeating Illinois, 25-19.

“It’s hard. We want to give the fans wins,” senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said. “We definitely put a better product out on the field. Excited to see that. We were winning for what, 55 minutes of that game? It’s hard.”

It was a solid start for the Illini. Rod Smith established the running game early, getting both Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin their carries and combining for 211 yards. The offense couldn’t get anything established in the passing game, however, throwing for just 168 yards on 20-of-29 passing. Chase McLaughlin was cash on the day, hitting on all four of his attempts, including a trio of kicks from at least 40 yards.

“One thing I’ve really been excited about is gaining some confidence,” McLaughlin said. “I think today we showed that. I don’t think there was a single person on the sidelines who didn’t think we were going to go down and score there at the end.”

But Barnett was just too much for the Illinois defense to handle. He finished with 411 passing yards, finding his receivers on 23-of-40 attempts. He led two touchdown drives for the Bulls in the fourth quarter, with the go-ahead score being a 50-yard strike down the sideline to Darnel Salomon.

With just over two minutes remaining on the clock, the Illini were given another shot to come out on top. Two straight 10-yard rushes by the two-headed backfield monster of Epstein and Corbin put Illinois in decent field position. On 2nd and 20, MJ Rivers stepped up and delivered a bullet to Ricky Smalling for 16 yards as he was taken down just inside the sideline. The Illini decided to spike on 3rd and 4, instead of using their last timeout. Rivers found Trenard Davis across the middle for a nine-yard gain, but a five-yard sack forced the Illini to burn their last time out before ultimately overthrowing Ricky Smalling in the endzone on the game’s final play.

“Looking at that again, probably would’ve handled that differently in that situation,” Lovie Smith said on the decision to spike instead of using the timeout.

Unfortunately, Illinois leaves Chicago still winless at Soldier Field. The loss to South Florida moves the Illini to 0-4 all-time in Lovie’s former stomping grounds. Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman has stated plans to bring in an out-of-conference foe to Soldier Field every four years. So while Illinois will have to wait to break their winless record in Chicago, Lovie Smith will have to wait until next season to capture his first major non-conference victory with the Illini.

MOMENTS THAT MATTER

WATCH: Mike Epstein’s 43-yard first quarter touchdown got the Illini on the board first and really got the offense moving.

Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips’ first career interception was a BIG one. His takeaway set up a Chase McLaughlin 53-yard field goal just before half, taking Illinois into the locker room with a 16-7 lead.

HE SAID IT

“We’re going to move on,” Allegretti said. “We have a great opportunity for us with the Big Ten opener, Friday night game, so we’re excited for that.”

SOUND SMART

UP NEXT

The Illini will look to rebound this Friday night when they welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to town. The No. 11 Nittany Lions trounced Kent State 63-10 this week.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. CT and it will air on Fox Sports 1.