CHICAGO — Twenty-five tantalizing yards would have exorcised the demons of last year’s loss at the hands of South Florida and temporarily erased any miscues that the Illini had during Saturday’s rematch.
Instead, with six seconds left from the South Florida 25-yard line, freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II uncorked a ball that landed in receiver Ricky Smalling's hands out of the back of the end zone as time expired.
The incompletion was the end of a gut-wrenching 25-19 loss to South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago that came down to the final play of the game.
"It's tough," said running back Mike Epstein of the game coming down to the final play. "It hurts."
Rivers finished 20 of 29 for 168 yards and started in place of starter AJ Bush Jr., who left last week's game against Western Illinois at the start of the second quarter with a hamstring injury.
"I could have done way better for my team," Rivers said. "There are things I needed to clean up and get better at so I can help my team win."
Illinois got the ball down by six with 2:24 left in the game and all three timeouts, needing to traverse 75 yards to snatch a victory back from South Florida.
Rivers was 7-of-8 on the final drive for 63 yards before the final incompletion.
"You dream of a quarterback coming down to the last drive to win the game," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "M.J. put our team in a position to win it, we just didn't finish it the way we will in the future."
The game came one year after the Illini traveled to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., and lost 47-23 at the hands of the Bulls.
This year wasn't that.
“When we have a day like today, it’s just tough," Smith said. "It’s tough for our team. We’ve come a long way. Last year when we played South Florida, we weren’t real competitive against them. This year is a completely different game."
Illinois' stable of running backs shouldered the offense. Reggie Corbin ran for 32 yards on his second carry of the game and was immediately followed by a 43-yard scoring burst from Mike Epstein on the second Illini drive of the day.
It was the final time the Illini reached the end zone.
"It's a committee," Corbin said. "It is what it is. It may be somebody else's breakout game next week, but obviously we didn't do enough because we should have scored a lot more. I take that on myself, and I think the other running backs do as well."
Epstein led the team in rushing for the second consecutive week with 113 yards and Corbin charged ahead with 93 of his own.
The rest of the scoring was provided by kicker Chase McLaughlin who split the uprights with four field goals of 26, 46, 53 and 41 yards.
"It feels good," McLaughlin said of his four field goals, "but in the end the team didn't win. That's what I'm there to do is help the team win. If I go out there each play that I'm called and try to do the best that I can and we can hopefully get a win out of it. Today it didn't happen."
Holding the Illini out of the end zone on four drives left the door just open for the Bulls to overcome seven consecutive drives without a point from the first to the third quarter.
"It allowed the lead not to widen and we were able to stay in the game," USF coach Charlie Strong said. "When you are down 13-7, then they go 16-7 and then 19-7, you just felt like ‘We were still in the game.’ Because we can strike and we can get touchdowns; we just knew we had to get them.”
The Illini (2-1) led for 57 minutes, 36 seconds before South Florida (3-0) quarterback Blake Barnett took advantage of a blown defensive assignment to find Darnell Salomon streaking wide open down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown hookup to give the Bulls a 25-19 lead.
Barnett, a transfer from Alabama and Arizona State, was 23 of 40 with two touchdowns and two interceptions while throwing for 411 yards, and running back Jordan Cronkrite rushed 22 times for 139 yards and a score.
Until the fourth quarter, the Illini defense tested the strength of the proverbial metal bar that bent and bent before finally snapping in the fourth quarter. South Florida tallied 199 of its 626 total yards in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 unanswered points.
Barnett hooked up with Salomon to open the quarter on a 14-yard scoring strike to pull the Bulls within striking distance.
"You look at the stats and of course they had a lot of total yards at the end, but until we start giving up big passing plays, we were in pretty good shape throughout," Smith said.
Memories of last season aren't creeping up. This game started a slide of 10 consecutive losses.
That's not how the Illini or senior captain Nick Allegretti see this season.
"We're a better team," Allegretti said. "We are not the same team we were last year. We compete more, we play harder and with more effort, we have more talent. We're a completely different team. I think we've seen that in the first three games and we're going to see that for the rest of the year."