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  1. Sports

Familiar slow start, strong finish for USF in win vs. Illinois

TAMPA — A quirky NFL stipulation precluded USF from having the Raymond James Stadium end zones adorned with their logo Friday, and perhaps the barrenness was fitting.

This was a blank-slate game if there ever was one, a chance for arguably the most maligned 2-0 team in America to start fresh. With Floridians desperate for a post-Irma pick-me-up, USF had incentive, inspiration (a packed student section among the announced crowd of 35,404) and an ESPN audience.

What did the Bulls deliver? 14 first-half penalties and two of their own kicks blocked (one leading to a scoop-and-score), followed by some offensive pizazz.

Final: No. 22 Bulls 47, Illinois 23.

"I can't say enough about this football team and just how they responded here tonight," said coach Charlie Strong, whose team had three practice days to prepare.

"Usually when you go out a day before a game it's kind of a walk-through, but we couldn't walk through. We had to have a real practice."

A victorious performance, even an impressive one by the night's end.

Just not quite a command one (unless you're referring to the defense).

On a night when they could've bowled the nation over, the Bulls (3-0) left us somewhat split: Just how much progress are they making, and how much did they simply overwhelm a greener foe?

While you ponder that question, we'll go to a topic in need of no deliberation: The defense is progressing more noticeably than the offense.

More than half of Illinois' 354 yards came in the fourth quarter, when Strong had emptied his bench. Subtract Illini freshman Mike Epstein's 45-yard touchdown run on an apparently missed gap, and USF held the Illini to 95 first-half yards.

Illinois was 3-of-11 on third down after three quarters. Three more interceptions (by cornerback Ronnie Hoggins, safety Tajee Fullwood and freshman linebacker Keirston Johnson) gave USF eight in three games.

"It's a different feeling (from last season) because the defense is playing lights out," said tailback Darius Tice, one of three backs who gained more than 100 yards (12 carries, 105 yards). "This is a new feeling."

Indeed, anyone who endured last year's blown assignments and brittle tackling knows this unit is making strides.

As for Quinton Flowers and Co.? Getting there.

"When you look at the first two games we played, and then tonight, it was a major step for us," Strong said.

Brandishing a bit more creativity than it had in its first two games, USF amassed 680 total yards, and produced three 100-yard rushers for the second time ever.

As coordinator Sterlin Gilbert had hinted, some previously unseen elements of his system were revealed to a hearty crowd that included 2,154 first responders (and their families) and 87 high school teams.

There were jet sweeps, stacked-receiver formations, even a touchdown pass to tailback D'Ernest Johnson on a wheel route (circa 2016).

And Flowers' touchdown on the first half's final play, an improvised 6-yard dash into the end zone when he could find no open receiver, was the latest exhibit of why he'll go down as the best player in school history.

"The big thing is, it's a sport of having fun," Tice said. "Quinton Flowers, he's having fun, and when he's having fun he's at his best."

For the game, Flowers, who seemed to be afforded more latitude with his legs than the previous two outings, finished with 386 total yards and four touchdown passes, tying his single-game high.

"Just went back out there being myself and just playing the game I love," he said. "The guys love seeing that, the guys love when I do that, so I'm gonna do whatever it takes for my team to win."

But make no mistake: This team still has smudges. The dropped passes are reaching an epidemic. The line doesn't appear cohesive. And we're not sure the succession of power runs will work against stiffer defenses down the road. And about those penalties.

"You don't ever want to play from behind the chains, and we did that a lot tonight," Strong said. "We were able to overcome those penalties, and ... you get in a close game that's gonna be hard to do."

So issues remain. Speaking of issues, that leads us to special teams; USF won't ever be one until its woeful kicking game (two blocked kicks, two blocked punts in three games) straightens out.

Such was the Bulls' performance on this national stage.

Uplifting for sure.

"That was our whole thing, just to do it for the city of Tampa," Tice said.

But more lifting is needed to propel them to the stratosphere they ultimately wish to reach.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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