CHICAGO — For the better part of three quarters Saturday, USF delivered an absolute monstrosity on the Midway. Picks, penalties and poor kicks were conspiring to produce the worst effort of the 15-game Charlie Strong era.
But in a display of grit that any blue-collar Midwesterner might appreciate, the Bulls responded with their second fourth-quarter rally against another Power Five foe in as many Saturdays.
Final: USF 25, Illinois 19.
Or to steal a line from the local vernacular: holy cow.
"It wasn't pretty at all, but we got it done," said junior Mitch Wilcox, who set a USF single-game record for a tight end with eight catches for 109 yards. "That's all that matters."
Blake Barnett's 50-yard scoring pass to Darnell Salomon — at least 5 yards behind the nearest defender — with 2:24 to play capped the Bulls' latest comeback, this one from a 12-point second-half deficit.
Rookie defensive tackle Tyrone Barber then sacked freshman quarterback MJ Rivers at the Bulls' 25 on the game's next to last play. Rivers' final pass sailed beyond the back of the end zone to set off a celebration among the USF fans in the announced audience of 21,725.
"It was just focus, man," senior nickelback Ronnie Hoggins said. "Just believing, just believing that … we're the better team and we can come out and win this ball game."
Yet focus was scarce in the first half, arguably the worst of the Strong era. The Bulls committed six first-half penalties.
Arguably none smarted more than the first, when Barnett's fourth-and-7 completion to Wilcox for first-down yardage inside the Illini 20 was negated by a 15-yard tripping penalty. The Bulls punted as a result.
But picks and poor tackles were equally culpable. Struggling mightily to fill gaps early on, the Bulls were gashed for 135 rushing yards in the first half. On its second drive, Illinois reeled off runs of 32 and 43 yards, the latter a touchdown by tailback Mike Epstein.
"They were doing some things we weren't used to," linebacker Khalid McGee said.
Before storming back, Barnett also threw two picks (though only one can be reasonably pinned on him) and transfer kicker Coby Weiss missed field goals of 44 and 40 yards. Weiss made a 35-yarder on his second attempt, but it was negated by a false-start flag.
"I told our team even before the game started, 'You're gonna get your best today from Illinois,' " said Strong, whose team committed 14 penalties for 124 yards. " 'No. 1, we're not prepared to play, we're not focused and we're gonna have to be a disciplined team.' There's no excuses, but the day is on me and the coaching staff. We just didn't have our team ready to go."
But much like last week's 49-38 win against Georgia Tech, when the Bulls scored three touchdowns in the final quarter, timely points mattered more than style ones.
Trailing 19-7, USF ended a streak of seven consecutive scoreless possessions with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Barnett's 14-yard touchdown to Salomon on the fourth quarter's opening play. Barnett, who had periodically struggled to that point, went 6-for-8 for 77 yards on the drive.
After forcing an Illini three-and-out, USF got a 26-yard field goal from Weiss, cutting its deficit to 19-14 with 7:47 to go. Barnett's 55-yard completion to Randall St. Felix, in single coverage down the right side, set up the score.
Meantime, the defense tightened, allowing 149 total yards after halftime. That set up Barnett's winner to Salomon, inexplicably wide open.
"I can't really get into the playbook with you," Barnett said. "But we had planned to try to put that safety in a bind and we did."
As a result, USF now has won five in a row against Power Five opposition, and seven of its past eight. But the Bulls realize life on the edge can be fleeting.
"We can't keep putting ourself in this situation," Barnett said. "Obviously everyone's ecstatic and over the top, it was a very dramatic and emotional game. But we have to come out stronger at the start of game so we don't put ourselves in a hole."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.