From the festive pre-game tailgate in Grange Grove to the fannies in the seats, Illini Nation came out of hiding on Saturday night.
The 48-23 loss wasn’t what they wanted. But they roared with approval as the Illini jumped out to a 14-7 lead. And even though Illinois wasn’t up to the challenge, merely being within striking distance early in the fourth quarter was a positive sign.
Orange-and-Blue fans filled Memorial Stadium with a crowd of 60,670, Illinois’ first sellout since a Nov. 12, 2011, meeting with Michigan in Ron Zook’s final season. This was Illinois’ first nonconference sellout at home since 70,060 saw a 21-7 loss to Arizona on Sept. 12, 1987.
“I thought the fans were outstanding,’’ said new coach Lovie Smith, who’s at the heart of Illinois’ turnaround plans. “They did their job. This is good for [our players] to see, what it eventually will be when we’re playing top-notch ball.’’
There may be no moral victories. But there is forward progress.
“The guys fought hard and they stayed in there, even though we weren’t playing our best ball,’’ Smith said. “I thought we were ready for prime time. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.’’
Illinois (1-1) delivered an entertaining start and, all things considered, an encouraging performance against a talented Tar Heel team that some thought would handle the Illini roughly.
“I think we showed [Illini fans] we can play with energy, we can play with passion,’’ said quarterback Wes Lunt. “We have to do a better job of finishing a game. We can’t let things go from bad to worse.’’
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Illinois closed to a one-possession game, 31-23, on a seven-yard touchdown pass from Lunt to Malik Turner. Carolina then scored the final 17 points of the game to win comfortably.
Lunt completed 17 of 35 for 127 yards and two touchdowns. But he fumbled late in the first quarter to set up a two-play, 19-yard touchdown drive that gave North Carolina its first lead, 17-14. Illinois trailed the rest of the way.
“I just panicked and it slipped out of my hands,’’ said Lunt, who appeared to simply drop the ball after a miscommunication with Turner that took away the passing option Lunt expected.
“I don’t think I did well,’’ Lunt said. “As an offense, we had penalties, fumbles, things we don’t usually do..’’
Illinois commited 13 penalties for 99 yards, and fumbled six times, although it lost only one.
“We were just off a bit, Wes and everyone else,’’ Smith said. “Miscues really hurt us, We’re a more disciplined team than that.’’
North Carolina (1-1), which put a scare into No. 9 Georgia before falling 33-24 last week, threatened to pull away in the second half. But Illinois was able to keep hanging around until about eight minutes remained.
There is a lot of work to be done before Illinois football is truly competitive. But a program that has seemingly been rudderless for years appears headed in the right direction.
On a measuring-stick night, Illinois measured up reasonably well.
Hiring Smith to restore a program that was wallowing in confusion on the field and scandal off of it was a perception-changing stroke by new athletic director Josh Whitman.
On the third play from scrimmage, Ke’Shawn Vaughn burst free for a 65-yard touchdown run that. The crowd erupted at Illinois’ 7-0 lead.
That early success only made the final disappointment tougher to swallow.
Clearly, Smith needs to improve the talent base. That will be a process.
But the Illini showed enough against North Carolina that their fans are likely to remain interested in following the next steps they take under Smith.
Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com