Grading the Illinois football team after its loss to North Carolina


Quentin Shaw

Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot tackle North Carolina tailback Elijah Hood for a safety at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

By The Daily Illini sports staff

The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 48-23 loss to North Carolina on Saturday. The Illini offense, defense, special teams and coaching were graded.

Offense: D

The Illini offense looked like it was in top form on the first drive, thanks to a 65-yard touchdown run from Ke’Shawn Vaughn. But after that, sustained drives were few and far between with the Illini recording only 229 yards the rest of the game. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt had trouble connecting with his receivers all night. Lunt completed 17 passes on the night, but five of them found Illinois running backs. Vaughn led the team with four receptions, and wide receiver Malik Turner was next with three receptions.

Lunt threw for 127 yards on Saturday. He fumbled three times, losing only one. But North Carolina made him pay for the error, scoring to take the lead early in the game. After the game, Lunt said that moment was the turning point for the whole game. The Illini offense averaged 4.4 yards per play. The Illini, as a team, committed 13 penalties for 99 yards on the night. Every time the Illini seemed to get a big play, it was called back.

Defense: C-

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The Illini defense gave up 48 points against the Tar Heels, but the Illini were in the game until the fourth quarter, thanks to the defense. The Illini were within eight points after their first drive of the quarter. Even though the offense was struggling, the defense was doing its best to provide as much momentum as possible. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot picked up a safety in the second quarter, waking the crowd up. But those two points were the last points Illinois would score until the fourth quarter.

But the defense shot itself in the foot all night, gifting the Tar Heels free plays with penalties.

Linebacker Hardy Nickerson had another solid game for the Illini. He had 11 total tackles, 3 solo, but he said nobody on the defense was clear of the blame.

“The first thing we have to do is watch the film,” Nickerson said. “We have to swallow it. There is no pointing fingers. Everybody on the defense made a mistake. We can only get better from here, and we take that attitude into practice.”

Special Teams: C

The Illini special teams were at a disadvantage from the beginning. Punter Ryan Frain was involved in a biking accident Friday. It wasn’t serious, but it caused him to sit out the game. Backup David Reisner got a good workout in his first start of the season — he punted nine times, averaging about 39 yards per punt. He had one great punt which trapped the Tar Heels on their own two-yard line and led to Smoot’s safety, but other than that, he had a rough time. He shanked a few punts, leaving them short or out of bounds, and when he would kick it long, he would not have the loft under it. This gave the Tar Heels’ kick returners a lot of space to field the punt.

Coaching: C

Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee seemed to have the North Carolina defense’s number. But after that, nothing went McGee’s way. There were several interesting play calls by McGee throughout the game, and there were several miscues in his offense. The North Carolina offense was explosive the whole game. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson’s squad was not able to stop the Tar Heels from making big plays all night.

After the game, head coach Lovie Smith said that his team practiced better than they played. It was his first big game as the head coach of the Illini, and it is safe to say the Illini underperformed.

“We will learn from it,” Smith said. “I thought we were ready for prime time, but we aren’t quite ready for that. But we will be.”

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