Illini fall in second half at Soldier Field

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Illini fall in second half at Soldier Field

Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (3) makes a tackle during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (3) makes a tackle during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (3) makes a tackle during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (3) makes a tackle during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

With six seconds left on the clock, head coach Lovie Smith called the final time-out of the game. It was the final drive for Illinois, and the team was down 25-19 to South Florida.

In that 60-second span, the Illini made a plan. The team had 25 yards to goal, and freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers needed to throw the ball.

Once they were back on the field, the plan was clear; however, the execution was not.

After an overthrown pass to Ricky Smalling, an attainable win was snatched from the hands of Illinois and replaced with the first loss of the 2018 season.

“We expected to win; it’s sad that we didn’t,” said running back Reggie Corbin. “I’m hurting right now; we expect to win every single game. We don’t expect to ‘hang’ with other teams; we expect to win regardless of who we play because we work that hard.”

Illinois opened up the game much stronger than its previous two as Corbin rushed for a 32 yard gain, followed by Mike Epstein’s 43-yard touchdown run within the first five minutes at Soldier Field.

Though it was the only touchdown by Illinois of the day, the Illini managed to maintain the lead until the last five minutes of the game. The team has kicker Chase McLaughlin to thank for that. The senior went 4 for 4 on field goal attempts. 

During the postgame, Lovie Smith mentioned he would rather not have to rely on the senior as much, pointing out that when in the red zone, walking away with a touchdown is key. But he made sure to note how happy he was in the reliability of McLaughlin. 

The third field goal of the night came right before halftime, when McLaughlin sent a 53-yarder straight through the uprights to bring Illinois into the locker room with a 16-7 halftime lead.

Throughout the first half, the defense looked sharp. The return of Tymir Oliver on the defensive line added some much-needed pressure on USF quarterback Blake Barnett. In addition, true freshman Jartavius Martin, who caused Illinois problems early this season, showed flashes of athleticism when he grabbed his second interception of the season. 

Once the Illini headed back through the tunnel and onto the field, the tide began to change.

The quick offense was one that Illinois was seldom able to catch once it got rolling.

“I was just trying to keep the quarterback in the pocket,” said defensive end Bobby Roundtree. “Once (he) gets out, he’s a pretty good runner.”

South Florida tight end Mitchell Wilcox was repeatedly left wide open for multiple connections. The junior collected 109 receiving yards, 90 of which came in the second half.

As for Corbin and Epstein, the two continued some solid groundwork into the second half, but play-calling kept Illinois from making any big advances. The two running backs rushed for a total of 221 yards collectively, while Rivers went 20 for 29 through the air with 168 total yards.

“I could have done way better for my team,” Rivers said. “There are things that I needed to clean up and get better at.”

Last season’s game against South Florida is called a bad game by both the team and coaches alike.

The 47-23 loss proved to be a major setback and the kickoff to a 10-game losing streak. While the Illini have had their first loss of 2018 handed to them by the Bulls once again, Smith is more than confident the two seasons will not compare.

“We’ll be in the position again, and we’ll be able to finish it,” Smith said.

@tati_perry14

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