Illinois began the game clicking on all cylinders against UNC. They marched nearly 70 yards down the field in a speedy fashion, but on 4th down and one from the two-yard line Wes Lunt couldn't complete a short pass to Geronimo Allison and they turned the ball over on downs. From there, the Tar Heels never looked back. QB Marquise Williams ripped off a 32-yard run during their second offensive series of the day. That set up a 48-yard field goal that was followed up on the next drive by a Romar Morris run into the endzone and suddenly North Carolina was up 10-0. They tacked on another field goal near the end of the first half and at that point it was 13-7. Since that point in the ballgame the Heels stunningly outscored Illinois 35-7. Williams, who ran for 41 yards and another touchdown in the third quarter, was pulled out of the game early in the fourth due to the huge lead. Chayce Crouch came into the game at quarterback for the Illini and led the team to a score with 50 seconds remaining in the game, but it had all been decided by the time the orange and blue finally scored again.
It was certainly a disappointing showing for Cubit and company, and a final score deficit I don't think any Illini fan saw coming. Here are our main takeaways from Illinois' first road game of 2015:
1. It really was Kent State and Western Illinois
Tim Banks' defense came into this game ranked first in the country in points allowed (just three in the first two games combined). Some were optimistic that the Illini D had finally turned a big corner, others were skeptical that it was more about the quality of opponents. Well, it was unfortunately the latter that was more accurate. UNC put up nearly 500 yards of total offense and scored 48 points. The tide began to turn early in the second half when the Illini put together back-to-back-to stands, but they quickly returned to their earlier form and went on to get embarrassed by the Tar Heel offense. It is clear that Illinois' incredible start to the year defensively was more myth than reality, and they were harshly slammed back down to earth against their first power-five opponent of the season.
2. The offense wasn't that great, either
The defensive pitfalls were frustrating, but I think a lot Illini fans expected some regression on that side of the ball this week considering the opponent. It was perhaps a bigger surprise to witness the offense's inability to consistently put together solid drives. Lunt, who finished 15-for-32 with no touchdowns, threw a frustrating interception as he was trying to hit Marchie Murdock on a short curl route late in the first quarter, but more confounding than the turnover were the three-and-outs. The Illini put together seven of them, and punter Ryan Frain saw more action today than the first two games of the year combined. Give credit to Gene Chizik's North Carolina defense, but for an Illinois offense under Bill Cubit that was averaging 48 points per game, to score fourteen against the Tar Heels today was a huge disappointment.
3. Missed opportunities killed the Illini's chances
Let's do a quick rundown of the drives that decided this matchup:
- First drive of the game, the Illini go 70 yards in 11 plays, but can't convert on 4th and 1. They come away with no points in what very easily could've been a 7-0 start for the orange and blue.
- Last drive of the first half, Illinois makes an important stop on defense but head coach Bill Cubit lets the clock run down from 40 seconds to six seconds despite having a timeout remaining. The Illini gain 15 yards on first down, but with only a second left Zalewski misses a 57-yard field goal and Illini come away with nothing.
- First drive of the second half, the Illini march down the field on a 12 play, 65-yard series but a holding penalty brings back a potential touchdown. Desmond Cain also dropped a potential score in the back of the endzone earlier on the drive. Zalewski comes out and clanks a 45-yard field goal off the upright and they once again come away with zero points.