CHAMPAIGN — Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 65-yard touchdown dash had Memorial Stadium rocking.
Unfortunately for the Illini, that run on the game’s third play was probably the high point of the evening.
North Carolina proved that Lovie Smith’s team still has a ways to go, flashing dominance as Illinois looked simultaneously lost on both sides of the ball in a 48-23 loss Saturday night.
“We were pretty confident coming in. I think you could see that from the start of the game, just how we played with energy,” quarterback Wes Lunt said after the game. “Our biggest thing is a team that we haven’t overcome in a long time is once things go wrong, how do we respond? And I think that’s something that we’ve got to continue to work on. We’re 1-1 after tonight, definitely not the way we wanted it to go. Just got to do better responding to adversity.”
Adversity didn’t exactly smack the Illini in the mouth Saturday, as the team remained within striking distance for the majority of the contest. A muffed punt gave the Illini a short field in the first quarter, and Lunt cashed in with a touchdown pass to give Illinois a 14-7 lead. But Carolina capitalized on two short fields of its own, turning a long kick return into a field goal and turning a Lunt fumble into a go-ahead touchdown to make it 17-14. The Heels didn’t trail again.
The decision of Carolina head coach Larry Fedora to try for a touchdown rather than take a field goal right before halftime meant the Illini were down just eight at the break. The two teams traded scores in the second half before the Heels poured it on as the game reached its end.
The Illinois offense could never really get anything going, making any one-possession gap seem a whole lot bigger. And when the Illini did repeatedly close within a score, the Heels always had an answer by carving up the Illinois defense.
Of course, the Illini weren’t just outmatched. They did plenty to get in their own way, Lunt’s fumble looming large — the quarterback called it the turning point in the game, and it was hard to argue with him — and the Illini committing a whopping 13 penalties for nearly 100 yards of damage.
Add it all together, and you get the blowout defeat.
“It’s disappointing. We got out of character defensively,” linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. “Throughout training camp and last game, our main emphasis and what we had been good doing was everybody doing their job and getting lined up. And then when they’re in position to make plays, you have to make those. And it’s on everybody, everybody out there, all 11 guys, everyone made a mistake. UNC, they came out, they executed more than we did, and they won the game.”
“We were getting chunks, five, six yards a carry, we’re moving the ball. And then a penalty would just kind of ruin a drive, take us to first and 20,” Lunt said. “We’ll just have to see what we did wrong and get things fixed.”
Illinois was out-gained, 462-309, with Lunt throwing for just 127 yards and Vaughn’s 65-yarder a big percentage of the team’s 182 yards on the ground. Carolina was balanced against the Illinois defense, passing for 265 and rushing for 197.
By the end of the game, a once-packed Memorial Stadium was nearly empty, likely a reflection of the score more than of the enthusiasm for Smith’s future and where he hopes to take the program. But with the Illini still looking like the teams helmed by his predecessors, it made it pretty clear the distance this program has still to travel.
Smith said his team was not yet ready for primetime, and it showed. But he was also confident that his team will get there. It’ll take putting together a more consistent effort so the cheers at the start of the game can be heard later, too.
“When I say we’re not ready for primetime, I’m talking about finishing the job on primetime,” Smith said. “We came out, I thought there was good energy, thought the guys were in a great frame of mind going into the game. But you have to maintain that, and it’s what you do the entire 60 minutes. That’s what I was disappointed in. We had our moments throughout: a big stop right before the half to give us the momentum going in, the momentum swings throughout. But we never took advantage of any of them.”