Updated Rapid Recap: Illinois football loses 48-23 to North Carolina

Illinois+running+back+KeShawn+Vaughn+runs+down+the+sideline+for+the+first+touchdown+of+the+game+against+North+Carolina+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+September+10.+The+Illini+loss+48-23.

Quentin Shaw

Illinois running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn runs down the sideline for the first touchdown of the game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

By Cole Henke, Staff writer

The Illinois offense got off to a good start against North Carolina on Saturday. The Illini advanced the ball on the first two plays, and then on the third, Illini running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn broke free for a 65-yard touchdown.

But it was all downhill from there. The Tar Heels stomped the Illini 48- 23 in front of a sell-out crowd at Memorial Stadium. 

“We have practiced better, and we have played better than how we played tonight,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “I’d like to say that it’s all us, and what we didn’t do, but you have to give North Carolina a lot of credit. They played well in all three phases.”

After the Illini covered 80 yards on the first drive, the offense recorded only 209 more yards during the rest of the game. The Illini receivers were kept in check all night by the veteran Tar Heel secondary. The Illini picked up 127 receiving yards.

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt struggled all night to get in a rhythm. After a solid 226-yard outing against Murray State in the opener, Lunt completed only 49 percent of his passes. In the first quarter, when the Illini were still up 14-11, Lunt fumbled in the Illinois red zone. The Tar Heels went on to score just 40 seconds later.

“My fumble that they recovered was a big turning point in the game,” Lunt said. “We kind of bounced back from it with the big stop before half time, but that kind of turned the tides a bit when they scored right after it.”

Lunt threw two touchdowns on the night — one to running back Kendrick Foster early in the first quarter, and the other to Malik Turner on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Vaughn led the team with 116 rushing yards. It was a big turnaround from last week, when Vaughn picked up 60 total yards.

Penalties hindered the Illini all night. They picked up 13 penalties for a total of 99 yards. Between the penalty yards and the performance by Tar Heel quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Illini defense had a hard time getting stops. Trubisky picked the Illini apart for 265 passing yards and 42 rushing yards. He went 19-for-24, with two passing touchdowns, and he ran two in himself. 

The Illini couldn’t stop the North Carolina ground game either. The Tar Heels rushed for 197 yards between four rushers, and scored four times on the ground.

Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson continued to prove his captain status for the Illini. The graduate transfer picked up 11 tackles for the Illini, including three solo tackles.

Defensive end Dawuane Smoot tackled Trubisky for a sack in the second quarter, breathing some life back into the Illini and making it a one-possession-game at the time, but the Illini offense was unable to capitalize on the momentum shift.

“I felt pretty good about my performance,” Smoot said. “I know that my opportunities are limited because a lot of the team game plan for me and try to figure out ways to stop me. I feel like I had a pretty good game and I just have to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to me. But it’s still a loss, and it hurts.”

The Illini were within eight points early in the second quarter, but then the Tar Heels pulled away for good.

The Illini also lost two players to injuries. Strong safety Caleb Day went to the locker room with a hurt knee in the second quarter, and true freshman offensive lineman Gabe Megginson left the game in the fourth after a Tar Heel defensive lineman rolled over his leg.

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