North Carolina 48, Illinois 23
CHAMPAIGN - In just his second game, Lovie Smith brought the first sell-out crowd to Illinois in five years. But the first-year Illinois head coach doesn't have the quick cure for all the Illini football program's problems on the field.
Illinois took a 14-7 lead but North Carolina outscored the Illini 34-9 over the final 46:30 of the game to spoil what Illini fans hoped would be an arrival party for Illinois football.
Illinois (1-1) looked undiscipined, committing 13 penalties for 99 yards. It was careless with the ball, fumbling the ball six times (though losing just one). And Illinois senior quarterback Wes Lunt struggled (17-for-35, 127 yards, 2 touchdowns) as Illinois averaged just 3.6 yards per pass.
Lunt also lost the fumble that changed the game, turning it over at Illinois own 19 with 1:30 left in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky and North Carolina (1-1) averaged 7.5 yards per play against Illinois. Trubisky completed 19 of 24 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
Elijah Hood had just 26 yards on his first 12 carries but iced the game on a 62-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The capacity crowd of 60,670 was the first sell out since Nov. 12, 2011, vs. Michigan and was the first sell out of a nonconference home game since 70,060 paid for tickets for the Sept. 12, 1987, game against Arizona State.
The crowd had some early celebrations. On the third play from scrimmage, Ke'Shawn Vaughn (15 carries for 116 yards and a team-leading four receptions for 14 yards) ran untouched for 65 yards to give the Illini a lead within the first 85 seconds of action. Kendrick Foster (12 carries for 54 yards) then caught a 15-yard receiving TD with 2:55 left in the first quarter. But then Lunt fumbled and UNC ran away with the game.
To add injury to insult, Illinois lost two players to injury: starting guard Gabe Megginson left with an ankle injury and senior backup safety Caleb Day left with what appeared to be a seriours knee injury. Day was carted off the field.
What it means
A familiar story: a team with flaws shot itself in the foot against a superior team. Sorry, Illini fans. Smith doesn't have the magic wand to fix all of Illinois' issues from the Tim Beckman -- and before that Ron Zook -- era. College football rebuilds usually take three to five years, and Lovie hasn't yet coached a single player that he's recruited. Illinois' roster still has personnel issues compared to an ACC Coastal Division title contender like North Carolina. Will Illini fans -- and players -- show similar support and belief this week? Or will a deflating loss have a multi-week
What went right
Illinois' defense kept the Illini in the game with (surprise!) a good performance against the run -- until the closing minutes when Hood broke off a 62-yard touchdown run. Senior linebacker Hardy Nickerson was strong again, leading Illinois with 11 tackles. Carroll Phillips was disruptive, totaling 3.5 tackles for loss to bring his season total to 6.5 TFLs.
Vaughn and Kendrick Foster continued to look like a good Big Ten duo. Vaughn ran hard and showed breakaway burst on his touchdown and several other runs to the edge. Foster continues his breakout with another strong game, including a 15-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route and a 25-yard run where he broke several tackles to get inside the North Carolina 10.
What went wrong
Quarterback Wes Lunt had a performance that fairly will deserve harsh criticism. Lunt has NFL talent, but he looked skittish against UNC's pressure and made poor decisions. He has to be good for Illinois to be good. He now is 2-10 as an Illini starter against power-five opponents. That's not the legacy a quarterback wants to leave.
But it's not all on Lunt. Illinois' receivers couldn't get separation against North Carolina's cornerbacks, they dropped several passes and the run game struggled to be effective against seven in the box. Lunt has to play better, but it's hard to complete passes to wide receivers who can't get open partly due to a run attack that doesn't draw eight in the box.
Lovie Smith's teams are usually known for discipline but his team made costly mistakes, including several offsides penalties, several holding penalties, an illegal shift, an illegal formation and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when Vaughn struck a UNC player in the face.
The Illini pass rush -- the team's strength -- wasn't as strong as usual (two sacks). Trubisky had too much time to throw and bought some extra time with his feet.
Illinois got the ball with just over two minutes left in the second quarter and started the drive with penalties. Illinois then looked like it was going to try to run the clock out but it ran a pass play that went incomplete. North Carolina got the ball back and drove all the way to the Illinois 2. Luckily, Larry Fedora called a pass play with 0:02 left and the pass was broken up by Darius Mosely to end the half with no further damage.
North Carolina owned the special teams advantage. T.J. Logan 58-yard kickoff return set up a wind-aided 49-yard field goal by Nick Weiler. WIthout punter Ryan Frain -- it's unclear why he wasn't available -- kicker David Reisner took over punt duties and shanked a few.
Illinois can't afford many injuries. Day looked serious enough that it could be season-ending. The more concerning injury is to Megginson because Illinois has little Big Ten-ready depth on the offensive line. Jordan Fagan, who had a solid Week One performance, came in to replace Megginson at quickside guard.
Player of the game
Mitch Trubisky: The North Carolina quarterback struggled in a Week One loss to Georgia, but the North Carolina junior quarterback showed why Larry Fedora is so high on him. Trubisky showed speed and toughness in the run game and poise and accuracy in the passing game. He was by far the better quarterback in the game.
Illinois hosts Western Michigan for the nonconference finale before a bye week and the start of Big Ten play. The Broncos (2-0) upset Northwestern 22-21 in Week One at Evanston, so this team shouldn't sneak up on Illinois. Yes, Northwestern lost to Illinois State too, but the Broncos are talented. P.J. Fleck has recruited top-60 recruiting classes the last three years -- quite an accomplishment for a Mid-American Conference team. Fleck wanted the Illinois job, so this is his chance to show other big schools that he can "Row the Boat" past yet another Big Ten program. This is far from a gimme for Illinois. In fact, the spread should be close.