CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There was only a brief resemblance to the 2014 North Carolina defense during Illinois’ opening drive on Saturday before Tar Heels put their 2015 stamp on a 48-14 blowout victory.
The Fighting Illini gashed UNC’s defense for 73 yards on their first 10 plays to set up a 4th-and-1 at the 2-yard-line. The Tar Heels, as they did with a late defensive stop against South Carolina in their season opener, showcased Gene Chizik’s “bend-don’t break” philosophy with a defensive stop to keep Illinois out of the end zone.
“Coach Fedora told us before the game that when adversity comes, don’t blink,” senior defensive tackle Justin Thomason said following the game. “Just go straight ahead. That was big adversity. It was 4th-and-1; it was a big down.”
Instead of giving up an early score, the defense set an early precedent and made points difficult to come by the rest of the afternoon for an Illinois offense averaging 48.0 points per game on the season.
“I thought the defense set the tone for the day,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “We gave it up, gave it up, gave it up, on that first series and then got down inside the 5-yard-line and we stiffened up and didn’t give them any points. That set the tone for the day and everybody responded to that.”
Illinois found the end zone twice, reached the red zone three times and crossed midfield six times in its first loss of 2015. The Illini’s 14 points tie for the fewest scored since scoring three points against Michigan State on Oct. 26, 2013.
Illinois was 9-of-20 on third down conversions, yet picked up a first down just once in 10 tries when facing 3rd-and-5 or longer.
Despite an inability to manufacture a pass rush for the third consecutive game (UNC has two sacks in three games in ‘15), the secondary stayed glued to the Illini receivers, breaking up five passes in addition to M.J. Stewart’s first quarter interception. Junior quarterback Wes Lunt completed 46.9 percent of his passes (15-of-32) for 140 yards, throwing one pick without a touchdown to his credit.
“They had a great scheme,” Stewart said. “They had a lot of mesh concepts. I think our coaches did a great job of scheming them up and getting us in the right positions so we could make plays.”
Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit’s offense entered Saturday’s Power 5 matchup averaging 280.5 yards through the air, up from the 250 passing yards per game the Illini averaged in 2014. UNC held Illinois to 140 passing yards through the first three quarters while the outcome was in question despite generating pressure on Lunt.
The immobile quarterback had plenty of time to make throws against UNC’s four-man rush (and even had time when Chizik dialed up blitzes), but rarely found open receivers against the Tar Heels’ nickel and dime packages.
Illinois did manage to roll up 399 total yards of offense, including 227 rushing yards, although both Fedora and Chizik emphasize the scoreboard as the primary statistic of value. Josh Ferguson ran for 133 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries and Marchie Murdock led Illinois’ receiving corps with seven catches for 49 yards.
Safety Donnie Miles led UNC with 10 tackles, while linebackers Shakeel Rashad (8 tackles) and Jeff Schoettmer (7 tackles) paced the defense with a tackle for loss each.
UNC held its third straight opponent to less than 20 points after not holding a single opponent to less than 20 points in 2014. The Tar Heels last held three consecutive opponents under 20 points in 2013.