Illini Nation — wherever it was — almost missed a heck of a good time.
Would more fan support Saturday at Soldier Field have gotten underdog Illinois over the hump against South Florida? That’s a question that might accompany memories of this frustrating result — Bulls 25, Illini 19 — for a long time.
But vast sections of the stands were entirely empty, with an announced attendance of 21,725 merely a fanciful number. And the Illini, seeking to get to 3-0 for the first time since 2011, failed to protect a 19-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.
A correlation? You decide.
The Bulls (3-0) took their only lead of the game when Darnell Salomon raced behind a busted coverage to haul in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Blake Barnett with 2:24 left to play.
In the end, the Illini were a play away — any play.
Better coverage on Salomon, who scored twice in the final quarter, would’ve helped. But a key first down on any of the four Illini drives that ended in Chase McLaughlin field goals might’ve done the trick, too. A clutch throw and catch, a second-half turnover created by the defense, more production from the pass rush — the fans who did show up were waiting for any of those things, for a winning moment.
It just didn’t come.
“We just didn’t finish it the way we will in the future,” coach Lovie Smith said.
With starting quarterback AJ Bush out with a hamstring injury, an offense piloted by true freshman M.J. Rivers II mustered only three points after halftime. Rivers fought hard, but his inexperience showed as he repeatedly held on to the football too long; he was sacked five times. Playing behind the sticks was no way to go for an offense without a discernible vertical passing game.
USF coach Charlie Strong called his team unprepared and unfocused, and he was being kind. The Bulls were ravaged by self-inflicted mistakes — penalties, interceptions thrown, field goals missed, punts barely booted — and all but begging to be beaten.
“That’s on me and our coaching staff,” Strong said. “We didn’t have our team ready to go.”
Even with Illinois’ inability to finish drives with touchdowns, there was a feeling in the air that a more potent partisan crown would have buoyed one team and possibly buried the other.
“When you go on the road, you never know what your crowd will be,” Smith said. “We didn’t play in Memorial Stadium today for a home game.”
No doubt, it was a better day for the Illini than the one they had a year ago in Tampa, where the Bulls won 47-23. A team with 77 underclassmen out of 101 in all received major contributions from a host of young players, most notably sophomore running back Mike Epstein, who rolled up 169 total yards and scored the Illini’s lone touchdown.
“Anybody who watched the game would say that this is a different football team,” Smith said. “We’re in great position to do some things this year.”
A victory over USF would’ve been a great one of those things to do. It arguably would’ve been third-year coach Smith’s biggest win at Illinois and — on a weekend when the Big Ten face-planted on the whole — sent a message that the Illini are on the ascent.
And it was so close to happening.
“I just felt like we had the game,” sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree said.
“It just hurts,” Epstein said.
Smith probably didn’t mean it as a swipe at his fan base when he said the following about those who actually witnessed Saturday’s defeat:
“They did all they possibly could to help us win the football game. We love the ones that showed up.”
It was the ones who didn’t show up who stood out more.