TAMPA, Fla. — When Jim Delany advocated for B1G teams to start playing Friday night football in 2017, his goal was television-based. The B1G commissioner wanted those games to be on at every bar in America on Friday night instead of buried in the noon slot on Saturday.

But surely Delany didn’t want every bar in America tuned into the Illinois-USF game on ESPN on Friday night.

It was, for lack of a better word, disastrous. Illinois wasn’t the team that anyone wanted to see in prime time. And for a decent portion of the night, neither was No. 22 USF.

The game had no rhythm, which might’ve had something to do with the 26 first-half penalties. Both teams were undisciplined, which created the perfect storm for the already flag-happy officiating crew.

Still, it would’ve taken a whole lot more flags and points for Illinois to have actually earned a victory vs. USF in Tampa. Viewers who stood strong through the barrage of penalties were treated to the Illini’s non-existent passing game, woeful offensive line, gassed front seven and inexperienced secondary.

There wasn’t a whole lot worth watching for Illinois. Well, the Illini did block two kicks in the first seven minutes of the game, and it even earned two points for returning one extra point to the house. That, and a nice touchdown run by Mike Epstein, was the most excitement Illinois provided all night.

But those moments were few and far between. Friday night was about Illinois doing its part to contribute to four hours of slop.

Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get all the excuses out of the way.

Illinois started a program record 10 true freshmen. The team came into Friday night on a short week. Quinton Flowers is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. The Illini were 17.5-point underdogs in their first road game of the year. It’s still early in the Lovie Smith era.

All of that is true. But that doesn’t mean Illinois should’ve executed that poorly against a Group of 5 team.

It was bad all the way around. Chayce Crouch (8 of 18, 76 yards, 1 INT) was ineffective, to say the least. I’m not sure it would’ve mattered if the offensive line felt like protecting him. Don’t forget that USF’s best defensive lineman, Deadrin Senat, was kicked out of the game in the first quarter because of a targeting penalty (of course).

We already knew the Illinois offense was a disaster. We saw signs of that in the first two weeks against Ball State and Western Kentucky.

The defense, however, was plenty alarming, too. That wasn’t entirely on the offense for not sustaining drives, either.

There were missed tackles galore. Flowers was responsible for a lot of that, as was D’Ernest Johnson. And USF running back Darius Tice basically dragged an Illini defender five yards on his 10-yard touchdown run.

Perhaps no play showed Illinois’ defensive ineptitude more than Flowers’ first completion of the day. Illinois DB Cameron Watkins basically had a clean rush on Flowers. All it took was one Flowers side step for him to evade the rush and find a wide-open receiver in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown.

I get it. Watkins is a sophomore. He’s part of an Illinois squad that’s loaded with as many underclassmen as anyone in the B1G right now, and it shows.

But Saturday was a legitimate chance for Illinois to at least hang around with a top-25 team. USF literally GAVE Illinois 140 yards worth of penalties in the first half.

What did the Illini do with that? Score one touchdown.

There are problems with Illinois that are deeper than just having a young roster. There was no offensive creativity, the open-field tackling was sub-par and the adjustments were few and far between.

That comes back to leadership.

We knew that it was going to take time to build Illinois into a team that could go to bowl games and belong on the same field as top-25 teams. And yes, technically this is the first season in which Smith had an entire offseason to prepare.

But where’s the light at the end of the tunnel here? What about Illinois’ present should make fans optimistic about the future?

Smith still hasn’t answered the questions about how he’ll adjust to coaching the college game. Getting thumped by a Group of 5 team (albeit, a good one) like that should never be brushed off. Shoot, look at what Illinois did the previous two weeks in its victories.

Illinois was a field goal away from overtime against Ball State. At home. The following week, Illinois was a touchdown underdog to Western Kentucky. At home. Sure, Illinois won, but that’s probably not a good sign that it had to “pull off an upset” in that spot.

The obvious benefit of playing at USF on a Friday night was that the Illini staff would get a chance to recruit in the Tampa area, which is a rarity during the season. Smith wants to establish a presence in the state with the most prep talent in America. He’d love for those recruits to be a part of the future of Illinois football.

He’d better hope that none of them — or anyone else — flipped to ESPN on Friday night.