CHAMPAIGN - The trip to North Carolina provided Illinois football with the opportunity to buy some believers. They failed spectacularly, losing 48-14.
After decades of inconsistent -- and mostly bad -- football, the Illini fan base is conditioned to hope for the best but fear the absolute worst. And for some, their institutional memory is to give up hope at the first sign of adversity or failure.
But interim coach Bill Cubit's message? It's one game. Let's move on.
"Just because we lost one game, the end of the world has not happened," Cubit said. "We just got to keep going. If you get negative or you back yourself in the corner ... you're just defeating the purpose.
"I'm going to tell our kids to walk like a champ. I'm going to tell our guys they're good players because it's the only way to do it. The other has not worked for a lot of years (at Illinois). So why do we keep doing that? That's insanity. Let's get the positive part of it. 'Hey, I know you're disappointed.' I know the fans are disappointed. Our kids are disappointed. Our coaches are disappointed. But get over, and let's go and get this thing back."
That's not to say that the Illini aren't concerned about their performance.
The wide receivers continued to struggle to do their main job: catch the ball.
The defense -- which dominated inferior opponents, Kent State and Western Illinois, during the first two weeks -- was gashed like it had been the previous two seasons.
The special teams gave a grade-F performance, missing two field goals and allowing 168 punt return yards.
And the players appeared to let one miscue lead to another.
"The couple years we've been here, we let things like that snowball," Cubit said. "At the end of the third (quarter) and in the fourth, it just became one after another. Mentally, we got to do better than that. We know it's an issue. We got to fix it."
The Illini's performance at UNC certainly was discouraging. But it isn't the end of the world, nor the end of the Illini season -- as long as the Illini don't let allow it to hang over the locker room.
The Illini will have to beat a team they're not expected to beat to earn real credibility. But they'll get the chance to get some of those quick-to-jump fans back on the bandwagon with Saturday's 3 p.m. home game against Middle Tennessee State (2-1).
"Like I said after the game, you're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as you think you are," Cubit said.
"You're disappointed after the game, but you're never discouraged."
Cubit vs. Beckman
Cubit further separated himself from recently dismissed head coach Tim Beckman with a few subtle, unprovoked comments during his press conference.
Beckman angered many fans with his tone-deaf refrain of "If you changed X amount of plays, it would've been a different game." Cubit said Monday he won't take that, "What if..." approach.
"You can win every game," Cubit said. "I'm not doing that. The bottom line is the reality is we didn't tackle, we didn't tackle and we didn't cover on kickoffs. We need to fix that. I'm not going to lead these kids on and make them think that they're not issues. They are. We got to fix them this week."
Beckman also handed out individual passing or failing grades after each game. Cubit stopped that process with the Illini.
"To me, if you lose, nobody grades out," Cubit said. "That's my philosophy. We just didn't do enough to win. ...Like Josh Ferguson. He played really well. I'm not going to single that out because we lost. Josh understands that it's all about the team."
Fotu, Day suspensions lifted
The Illini defense will receive a much-needed depth boost with the returns of backup defensive tackle Joe Fotu and backup safety Caleb Day. Both players were suspended the first three games of the season due to violations of team policy.
Fotu's return gives the Illini more depth at defensive tackle, where they have already lost Teko Powell and Jamal Milan to injury. It also allows redshirt freshman Nick Allegretti to move back to the offensive line and back up both center and guard.
"He's a playmaker," Cubit said. "But I think Day is going to give us just as much on special teams. That's a really good athlete on special teams who can cover."
Injury Report: White out
Tyler White will miss Saturday's game due to a concussion, Cubit said. The starting tight end, who has caught five passes for 46 yards and two TDs) suffered the head injury during the second half of the North Carolina game.
The Illini already are short on tight ends after Tim Clary suffered an upper-body injury that could sideline him most of the season and fershman Caleb Reams will not play either because he still hasn't been cleared due to an injury. The freshman has not played yet this season.
JUCO transfers Andrew Davis (three catches, 16 yards) and Ainslee Johnson will see increased playing time, as will walk-on Nathan Echard.
Safety Clayton Fejedelem wore a walking boot after Saturday's game but Cubit said the senior safety is "fine" and will play Saturday.
Justin Hardee suffered some soreness and will not play Saturday.
As for sophomore receiver Mikey Dudek, Cubit said the team has not discussed when Dudek will start taking contact during practices.
"What game he is coming back?" Cubit said. "I'm not doing that. Some guys come back a little bit faster. But when the doctors say he's ready to go, then we'll put a jersey on him."
- Cubit said the team had nine drops during the North Carolina game, which included two likely touchdowns (one by Geronimo Allison and one by Marchie Murdock). Through three games, the team has 21 drops. "I've been in places where we didn't have 21 all season," Cubit said, "so we got to fix that." More on the drops in a story to be published on the site soon.
- When I asked Cubit if he discourages Wes Lunt from running, Cubit said: "When you move around the pocket, we want him to keep his eyes up. We got scramble drills. We think we can get more big plays with the scramble drill when our (receivers) are running around than he would if he just ran it. He broke the pocket, I think twice, on Saturday and gave us one big play and the other one should've been a first down, but we dropped it. I'd much rather do that, keeping his eyes up. Ryan calls it 'pocket presence,' 'pocket toughness.' He's moving better than he has in the past."
- Cubit said the defense -- which allowed 48 of its season 51 points against UNC -- didn't play as aggressive at Chapel Hill. "You kind of sawthe last couple years creep right back," Cubit said. "The linebackers aren't coming downhill as fast as they can. You didn't get as much of a pass rush. They were just out of sync."
- Sophomore receiver Malik Turner has just two receptions for 15 yards through three games. The sophomore starter's struggles begin with practice, Cubit said. "I think he's got to have some success, sometimes in practice," Cubit said. "To me, if you don't practice well, you don't play. I thought he had a little bit better practice last week, but we got to continue to get some improvement during the week."
- Cubit coached with MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill for one season at UCF in 1985. Cubit said they spent just seven months together but have remained close friends ever since.
- Middle Tennessee has scored 70-plus points in two of their three games, against Jackson State (70) and Charlotte (73). The Blue Raiders, which lost 37-10 at Alabama in Week 2, rank seventh in the country in points per game (51.0).