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Rapid Recap: Tarred & Feathered

Illini stumble hard in first true road test of the season at North Carolina, falling 48-14.

What Happened

Quite simply, the Illini got a rough welcome to playing power five opponents.  Illinois hung in the game early in the first half, but UNC started to pull away in the second quarter with big plays on offense and special teams.

The Illinois offense struggled to get things going, failing to score on a 4th and 1 from the 3 on their opening drive.  Illinois didn't get on the board until early in the second quarter, and then didn't score again until late in the fourth.  

After falling behind 13-0 to begin the game, a Josh Ferguson 1-yard TD run got the Illini to within 6 points, but it was all Heels from there on out.  UNC used a 35-0 run to leave no doubt that they were the better team on the day.

What Went Well

Josh Ferguson had one of his best outings in an Illini jersey against the Tar Heels.  Ferguson, who had 100 yards rushing by halftime, finished with 22 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Ferguson was one of the lone bright spots for the Illinois offense on the day.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn gave Illinois some strong running in relief of Ferguson, toting the rock 13 times for 52 yards.  

Marchie Murdock deserves some credit, too.  The young receiver had 7 catches for 49 yards, and other than a drop in the endzone, was pretty solid on the day.  Lunt went away from him for some reason in the second quarter, but Murdock seems to be growing into Dudek's role fairly well.

What Went Wrong

Illinois failed to convert several scoring opportunities, most notably that stalled first drive deep in UNC territory.  Wes Lunt had one of his worst passing performances in his Illinois career.  Normally a 70% passer, Lunt went 15/32 for just 140 yards and an interception.  He often locked onto receivers and didn't look as comfortable in the pocket as usual, despite not seeing much pressure all day.

In Lunt's defense, his receivers did have some drops, but for the most part, the offense just seemed to never find a groove outside of the first drive (which is scripted).  Illinois will need Lunt to not only make better decisions moving forward, but will need the entire passing game to execute better.

Sure, the defense gave up a lot of points in this one, but most of those came in the third quarter when the offense couldn't sustain a drive at all.  Physical opponents like UNC and most of the Big Ten will wear the Illinois defense down if the offense can't keep the defense on the sideline for a while.

On top of Illinois' offensive struggles, the special teams unit, which had been showing promise in the first two games, struggled all day.  Kicker Taylor Zalewski, who got put in some less-than-desirable spots, missed two kicks at critical points in the game, and the Illini couldn't seem to bottle up UNC's electric return man Ryan Switzer.

Star of the Game

For Illinois, it has to go to Ferguson.  The senior running back was stellar in the run game on Saturday.  Ferguson went over 2,000 yards rushing for his career in the game, and had to earn every one of his 133 yards on the day.

Defensively, Eaton Spence deserves a shoutout for a great interception on UNC's first drive.  The senior corner was solid in coverage all day, and didn't see too many passes thrown his way.

What's Next

Illinois heads back home to Memorial Stadium for the final game of the non-conference slate next Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, another read option team with speed at the skill positions.  A third non-conference win against a non-power 5 opponent is crucial heading into the Big Ten season if the Illini want to return to a bowl again this year.

After this week, Illinois will have some good material in the film room when working on their defense of the read option, which Nebraska is sure to use to some extent, too.

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