This was a frustrating game. While the final score indicates a game that many outsiders would expect — North Carolina asserts its dominance over an overmatched Illinois squad — and I’m still not sure whether that was the case or not. Illinois jumped out to an early lead putting the sellout crowd into a frenzy, but a mountain of errors allowed the Tar Heels to slowly take control of the game. So while many Illinois fans were talking themselves into an upset victory Saturday night, it wasn’t to be as North Carolina leaves Champaign with a 48-23 victory.
Here are three things we learned from Saturday’s loss.
Passing the ball is going to be a struggle
There’s no good way to sugarcoat it: Wes Lunt was pretty awful Saturday night. Normally, he’s able to compile decent statistics even in games where he hasn’t been particularly sharp. This was not the case Saturday; Lunt was 17-of-35 for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Just seven of the 17 completions were to wide receivers, and there was an array of miscues, from Lunt missing wide open targets, to the drops that Illinois fans are accustomed to seeing. He did turn the ball over with a fumble, as he dropped the ball without even being touched. Illinois really seemed to miss Mikey Dudek in this game, as no wide receivers were able to consistently get open.
Losing Gabe Megginson for any period of time would be disastrous
In the second half, it seemed as though the game was slipping away, but the worst news of the day would potentially be if blue-chip offensive lineman Gabe Megginson is injured for an extended period of time. Megginson was rolled up from behind on a busted play that led Joe Spencer to a 14-yard carry after recovering a fumble. The injury didn’t look good on replay, and trainers were working on his left ankle on the sidelines. The Illini are extremely thin up front, and to lose one of the most talented players on the roster to an injury at a position of need only complicates things further.
As a fan, this was tough — but only because this game felt winnable
There was a strange feeling surrounding the Illinois football program before this game: hope. It was the first sellout at Memorial Stadium since 2011, and the fans were loud when Illinois took a pair of early leads in the first half. As a fan, while the frustration of a lackluster performance is something that is all too familiar, this was slightly different. It wasn’t exasperation at the fact that the program had no heading or direction to go with its disappointments on the field, rather, it was the disappointment of letting a winnable game slip away. Detractors will say that Carolina made its fair share of mistakes and the final score could have been even more lopsided, but Illinois played far from its best game. Thirteen penalties is inexcusable, and the special teams were very forgettable aside from one coffin corner punt to pin the Tar Heels back. Saturday night’s game started with hope for a signature win to keep the momentum of the Lovie train going; instead, now we’ll get to see what Lovie and his staff can do as a group of coaches that have to improve the product on the field.