Chicago, Illinois 09/15/2018
The Bulls entered the fourth quarter Saturday down 19-7 to Illinois. The Bulls defense had already begun to take the game back, holding the Illiini to just three points in the second half, coming on a Chase McLaughlin field goal with just under three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bulls’ offense, stymied much of the afternoon by drops, errant passes and penalties, finally found the rhythm in two scoring drives totaling 4:20. Both were called as “Blake Barnett to Darnell Salomon” with the first on a jump ball to the corner of the end zone on a Barnett rollout. The second a “blown coverage” pass down field in which Salomon bobbled the pass in open space but softly and surely pulled it in as he strode across the goal line for the 50 yard score.
The two late touchdowns were in stark contrast to the previous three quarters of frustration which saw the Bulls running well, but struggling to score. A penalty negated a potential earlier score. So too, did the Bulls reluctance to kick in a couple of early fourth down situations. Add another penalty and the Bulls are punting instead of kicking for points.
Leading the Bulls on the ground was Jordan Cronkrite who totaled 136 yards on 22 touches. It was Cronkrite’s three yard rushing TD (and PAT) that tallied the Bulls only points in the first three quarters.
Barnett finished with 411 yards as the Bulls out-gained the Illini 626-380. Barnett added the two touchdowns to Salomon and ran for 17 yards. Barnett’s 411 passing yards were spread to Randall St. Felix (120 yards on 6 receptions), Mitchell Wilcox (109 yards on 8 receptions, career high yards, program high receptions by a tight end) and Darnell Salomon (95 yards on 5 receptions).
Wide receiver Tyre McCants added 77 yards on 3 catches, including this incredible effort in a key fourth quarter drive.
But it was the defense that turned the tide against Illinois, mush like against Georgia Tech a week ago. In addition to stifling the Illini’s ability to score beyond a field a goal in the second half, many defensive leaders set career highs. Linebacker Nico Sawtelle tallied a career high 13 tackles, Khalid McGee a career high 14 tackles and freshman Nick Roberts got his first start and totaled a career best 7 tackles.
Defensive tackle Kevin Kelgler had another key and punishing QB sack late in this one. Kegler totaled 1.5 sacks a new high for the big man.
That’s five in a row against “Power 5” opponents and the second in two seasons against the Fighting Illini.
The Bulls return home to Raymond James Saturday for the conference opener against East Carolina.