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An Illini football program on its bare hands and naked knees desperately searching for an identity found one Saturday on the sun-kissed shores of Lake Michigan.

Too bad it came in a heartbreaking loss.

If you wash down your Sunday morning coffee with the claim that you knew the Illini would take South Florida to the final play of the game, you’re either a bald-faced liar or Mrs. Lovie Smith.

Nearly every indicator going into Saturday’s game pointed to a lop-sided Illini loss. That long, long list includes the continued absence of five suspended players, three of whom are starters and all of whom should be ashamed they’ve let their team down the way they have.

It includes an injury list that has already claimed wideouts Mike Dudek and Edwin Carter, defensive tackle Jamal Milan, defensive back Sydney Brown and that Saturday made room for its starting quarterback, A.J. Bush.

Throw in the fact that Illinois is 0-4 on these trips to Soldier Field and that the opponent this time was a South Florida program that won 21 games the last two seasons and that arrived in Chicago as a 10 ½-point favorite.

Many folks still don’t believe head coach Lovie Smith can coach or that many of these players can play so maybe Saturday’s game, which the Illini led 19-7 going into the fourth quarter, won’t change any minds.

Having watched the Illini defense gouged for 626 yards in a 47-23 loss at South Florida last year, I figured the Bulls would win by about 18 Saturday.

Instead, South Florida won 25-19, outscoring the Illini 18-0 in the fourth quarter. There were mistakes aplenty, some by freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers II, some by a short-handed secondary and some by the coaching staff. Let’s just say that time management is not this staff’s strength.

But for all four quarters Illinois scrapped and clawed and delivered the best, most encouraging effort I can remember in years.

Helped by excellent special teams, a strong running game that could have been used more, and South Florida’s propensity for penalties and poor kicks, Illinois battled until M.J. Rivers’ game ending pass found Ricky Smalling beyond the back of the end zone.

Many of those who closely follow the program will struggle with this one, in part because of those suspensions.

The back-breaking play for the Illini defense came when walk-on safety Michael Marchese tried to help on a short pass route and abandoned the South Florida receiver who breezed past him uncovered for a 50-yard touchdown.

Marchese did the best he could. But that should have been Bennett Williams back there, who last year as a freshman All-American. He’s Illinois’ best defender and he has yet to play this season due to suspension.

More secondary help was needed too, and that job should be in the hands of Nate Hobbs, a starting cornerback who has also been sitting in the penalty box for the first three games.

And the passing game Rivers courageously tried to orchestrate would have been helped by speedy 6-foot-6 tight end Louis Dorsey, also on the suspended list.

Lovie has his faults. But what he’s trying to do is not easy. Starting at the bottom of the Big Ten heap and completely reshaping the roster is a wickedly difficult task. As he accumulates better players, he needs every one of them on the field.

In a game that Illinois had a chance to win against all odds Saturday, his best players weren’t out there.

That they came so close, I felt, was an indication that the rest of the roster is improving.

That might not be evident this Friday night when the Illini play their Big Ten opener against a superior Penn State squad. But we finally saw evidence that this team is making some headway.

Even in a loss, that was a welcome development.

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Contact Mark Tupper at (217) 421-7983. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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