The #22 USF Bulls made easy work of the Fighting Illini of Illinois on Friday night with a final score of 47-23, spoiling the homecoming of Illinois head coach, Lovie Smith. Smith formerly coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the same stadium.
The first quarter was a rough start for all of the teams, including the officials. USF won the toss and elected to receive the opening kick. Their first drive, amounting to 9 plays for 56 yards, featured three penalties, and ended in a blocked field goal attempt by the Bulls. The Illini’s Nelson Patrick recovered the ball on the Illinois 30 yard line for no gain. They were not able to convert a first down on the possession and punted back to USF, who took possession on their own 34 yard line.
USF’s second drive of the game would put points on the board for both teams following a bizarre sequence of events. With 2nd and 5 on the Illinois 39 yard line, Bulls’ quarterback, Quinton Flowers, connected with Deangelo Antoine for a touchdown. On the extra point try, the officials found a helmet to helmet contact penalty, requiring a retry of the kick. On the retry, Illinois blocked the kick, recovered the ball, and returned it to the USF end zone, scoring two points.
The next three drives led to no more scoring, but added six more penalties to the tally. One of those included a targeting call against USF defensive lineman, Deadrin Senat. Senat was ejected from the game for the second time this season. He drew the same penalty in USF’s first game of the season at San Jose State.
With three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Illinois faced a third and nine from their own 21 yard line. Quarterback, Chayce Crouch attempted a pass, but was intercepted by Ronnie Hoggins. Hoggins returned 12 yards to the Illinois 12 yard line. The Bulls were tagged with a penalty before they even snapped the ball, a false start on center, Cameron Ruff. Unable to get out of the yardage hole, they attempted a field goal, a successful 24 yard attempt by Emilio Nadelman. With just under a minute remaining in the first quarter, USF led 9-2. When the first quarter was in the history books, each team had been given seven penalties apiece for a combined 95 yards.
The subsequent Illinois drive ended in a punt from their own 38 yard line, giving the Bulls possession at their 13. Four plays later, Flowers hooked up with Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 43 yard pass and catch, setting them up with first down on the Illinois 19. A couple of short runs by Flowers and a 10 yard scamper by Darius Tice gave the Bulls a 16-2 lead.
The Fighting Illini fought right back two drives later. With third down and six to go on their own 24, Crouch found Louis Dorsey for a 23 yard reception. Two plays later, running back Mike Epstein found a seam down the right sideline for a 45 yard touchdown run. With 2:18 left in the second quarter, the Illini trailed 16-9.
That would be as close as Illinois would get to catching the Bulls, who scored another 21 unanswered points before the Illini would get on the board again. At the end of the first half, Flowers scored on a six yard run that was set up by a 32 yard pass to Temi Alaka. That gave USF a 23-9 lead into the halftime break.
In the second half, the Bulls continued their domination of the scoreboards. After forcing a three and out by the Illini on the second half kickoff, Flowers connected with Valdes-Scantling for a 17 yard touchdown pass. That score was set up in part by a 20 yard reception by Deangelo Antoine and a nine yard run by D’Ernest Johnson.
Illinois was unable to get a first down on the next possession, punting to the USF 27. In less than three minutes of game time, Flowers was scoring another touchdown, a 17 yard pass to Johnson. Illinois lost Stanley Green on the drive due to a targeting penalty. With 5:08 left in the third quarter, the Bulls led 37-9.
In the fourth quarter, Illinois found the end zone again. They made a change at quarterback due to the lack of success of Crouch and it made a difference quickly. Jeff George Jr. found Dorsey on his first play for 32 yards. The next two snaps resulted in a 27 yard pass to Mike Dudek and a 21 yard touchdown pass to Epstein. That narrowed the scoring gap to 37-15, favoring USF.
The Bulls seemed to take the late scoring personally. They piled on the points, scoring on a 13 yard pass to Tyre McCants and a 29 yard field goal from Nadelman on the next two possessions. Illinois took a little bit of the sting out of the scoreboard when RaVon Bonner scored on a one yard run with 1:40 left in the game, but the game had long been over.
USF head coach, Charlie Strong, was happy for the win, but not happy with everything he saw. “We can still improve,” said Strong. “There were two field goals blocked there early in the game, we gotta get that corrected, was able to get that corrected, but still had some leakage. And you look at the penalties. That’s on us as a coaching staff.”
When asked about the difference between this game and the struggles with other teams, Strong said, “We just have to put together a complete game. Offensively, we started off slow and weren’t moving the football.”
Illinois’ two quarterbacks combined for 287 yards passing, the bulk of which came when George Jr. entered the game with the score out of reach. Epstein, who was their leading rusher coming into the game, was contained to just 45 yards and one touchdown.
For the Bulls, it was another episode of the Quinton Flowers show. Flowers passed for 280 yards and four touchdowns, while running for 106 yards and another touchdown. During the game, he moved into the second position, all-time at USF for passing touchdowns, moving ahead of B.J. Daniels and Matt Grothe. It was also the 11th time he rushed for more than 100 yards.
Joining Flowers in the 100 yard club in the game were Johnson and Tice, who finished with 101 and 110 yards, respectively. Tice also had a running touchdown.
Two receivers nearly hit the century mark. Valdes-Scantling had 96 yards and a touchdown and Antoine had 93 yards and a score.
Next up for 2-1 Illinois is a Big 10 conference game with Nebraska following a bye week on September 29th. Undefeated #22 USF will begin conference play against Temple on Thursday, September 21st.