CHICAGO (AP) — Blake Barnett threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to Darnell Salomon as USF rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Illinois 25-19 on Saturday.
Barnett was 23 of 40 for 411 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and Jordan Cronkrite ran for 136 yards and a score for the Bulls (3-0).
Trailing 19-7 early in the fourth quarter, Barnett cut the Illinois lead with a 14-yard pass to Salomon to make it 19-14. Two possessions later, Barnett found a leaping Randall St. Felix for a 55-yard catch, which set up a 22-yard field goal from Coby Weiss with 7:47 left. After another USF stop, Barnett connected with Salomon from 50 yards to score with 2:24 left to give the Bulls a 25-19 lead.
For the second straight week, the Bulls rallied against a Power Five school. Last week, they scored 21 unanswered in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech.
“It was very similar to last week. We unfortunately put us in this position where we had to do that,” said Barnett. “We had to make something happen. Fortunately, like last week it worked out.”
USF coach Charlie Strong wasn’t thrilled with the way the Bulls began the game.
“You watched the way we played in the first half, never had so many penalties,” Strong said. “You look at where we are in penalties. ... But this a lesson we’ll learn, and this is a good thing.”
The Illini couldn’t score on its final drive thanks to a sack by Tyrone Barber at the South Florida 25 with six seconds left. Freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II threw the ball out of the end zone as time expired.
Chase McLaughlin converted a field goal from 52 yards to give Illinois a 16-7 halftime lead.
After a shaky first possession, Mike Epstein scored on a 43-yard touchdown run on Illinois’ third play from scrimmage. Epstein rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.
USF, which scored 49 points in a win against Georgia Tech last, week, answered with a 75-yard drive. Cronkrite went in from the 3 to tie it at 7, but the Illini defense held for the rest of the half and forced interceptions by Jartavius Martin and Del’Shawn Phillips, which set up field goals by McLaughlin.
McLaughlin connected again from 41 yards, banging off the right upright, capping a 10-play, 53-yard drive late in the third quarter to extend the lead to 19-7.
Rivers, in his first career start as quarterback, was 20 of 29 for 168 yards passing for Illinois (2-1). Rivers relieved A.J. Bush Jr., who was injured in the win against Western Illinois.
Illinois played a home game at Soldier Field for the fourth time in school history. The game attracted a small crowd with empty seats in the west side upper level.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith was back in a familiar place. Smith returned to the sideline where he guided the Chicago Bears to a 2006 NFC Championship. Smith was also backed by his former player and newly inducted Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, who was attendance. It was like old times for Smith, who saw his team thoroughly dominate USF on defense and special teams in the first half, a staple of his mid-2000 Bears teams.
Smith was impressed with his team despite the loss.
“Last year we played South Florida, we weren’t really competitive,” Smith said. “This year is a completely different game. I thought the guys came out strong. ... We had some critical mistakes that allowed them to win the football game.”
USF: One week after USF was sparked by two kickoff returns for touchdowns by Terence Horne, the Bulls' special teams were disappointing. Coby Weiss, who was filling in for Jake Vivonetto because of an illness, missed two field-goal attempts. Jake Stone and Trent Schneider also struggled with the punting duties. USF won its fifth straight game against a Power Five opponent. Tight end Mitch Wilcox helped the Bulls offense with eight catches for 109 yards.
Illinois: Despite the loss, Illinois looked considerably better than the 47-23 loss last year in Tampa to South Florida. Illinois showed a strong running game and was solid on special teams.
USF: Hosts East Carolina on Saturday.
Illinois: Hosts Penn State on Friday night.