Down to the inches for Illinois football

Illinois+quarterback+Wes+Lunt+calls+for+the+snap+during+the+game+against+North+Carolina+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+September+10.+The+Illini+loss+48-23.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt calls for the snap during the game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

By Charlotte Carroll, Sports editor

carroll-charlotteFor Illinois football, Saturday’s 31-16 loss came down to the nose.

The deciding moment was early in the fourth quarter when the team thought it had stopped Nebraska at a critical fourth-and-one in the Cornhuskers’ end zone.

Officials measured and gave Nebraska the first down after a generous spotting. Illinois coach Lovie Smith called a timeout, went over to the referees and challenged the play.

The call stood, and Smith and Co. looked furious.

On the next play, Nebraska scored a touchdown to retake the lead once more, which it held for the remainder of the game. And the Illini once again reverted to the team who can’t get the job done in the final quarter.

Up to that point, Illinois seemed to have finally figured it out. The bye week had treated the team well, and Smith brought in a prepared squad that could compete with the Cornhuskers in front of a sold-out crowd in Lincoln, Nebraska.

But possession time was key: The Illinois offense was out on the field for around 22 minutes, whereas the Nebraska one nearly doubled that time at just over 38 minutes.

Wes Lunt went 13-for-22, with just 133 yards. Wide receiver Malik Turner was the standout with 57 yards. Reggie Corbin led with 72 rushing yards followed by 46 yards and a touchdown from Kendrick Foster. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn had just one yard in a quiet performance.

The numbers were lackluster and the offense struggled to stay on the field.

By the fourth quarter, the fatigue began to hit. The defense started letting easy plays happen, and the touchdown right after the reviewed call showed as much.

No one was expecting the Illini to walk into Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium and come out with a win. Most had predicted a blowout, so keeping it close for that long and even getting an upset alert from ESPN seemed surprising.

It was refreshing and gave fans a look at a prepared team under Smith. The win wasn’t very likely going to happen in the first place, but Illinois proved it could compete. A competitive game was what the team needed, and for the most part — until the final quarter — it succeeded.

But watching the game after watching this team for a few years makes you take such a lead with stride. All you can wonder is “when will something happen to mess it up?” Will it be a penalty, a missed tackle by the safety, maybe even a fumble?

As football fans say here, that’s just so Illinois.

The fourth-and-one call that came down to the inches was just so Illinois. All the progress the team made came down to inches and the other small things that consistently stop the Illini.

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@charlottecrrll