After two dominant wins against Kent State and Western Illinois, the question became whether this Illinois team was for real or if it was just taking advantage of weak competition.
Well, the Illini failed their first real test of the season Saturday, getting crushed, 48-14, at North Carolina.
Illinois’ offense was held almost completely in check outside of a good day from Josh Ferguson, who used a couple big runs to get to 133 yards on the afternoon. Ferguson was also responsible for the Illini’s only touchdown of the first half.
But Wes Lunt and the passing attack couldn’t do much, limited by the North Carolina defense, a Lunt interception and a bunch of dropped passes in the receiving corps. Mostly, that ineffective offense led to punts. Lunt completed 15 of his 32 passing attempts for 140 yards and no touchdowns.
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No drive illustrated the Illini’s offensive woes more than a third-quarter drive that saw Lunt find Sam Mays on a third-down pass to get to the North Carolina 1-yard line. That play was called back on a penalty, though, forcing a field-goal attempt that kicker Taylor Zalewski clanked off the upright.
Backup quarterback Chayce Crouch rushed into the end zone in the fourth quarter for the team's second touchdown.
And while the offense struggled, a defense that had been amazing the first two weeks of the season couldn’t keep up with a more capable offense. The Tar Heels gained 471 total yards, including 254 on the ground. Quarterback Marquise Williams had a huge day, throwing for 203 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for an additional 105 yards. And the Heels added insult to injury with a punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter to make it a 41-point lead.
It’s a more than disappointing follow up to two weeks of terrific play from Illinois in the wake of the firing of Tim Beckman. But, if Saturday’s result was any indication, those results seemed to stem directly from the level of competition. Thankfully for the Illini, they get Middle Tennessee State in the final non-conference game next weekend.