Column: If the Illini can’t get out of their own dang way, they’re not going anywhere under Lovie Smith
If Week 1 was about showdowns, Week 2 was about confirmations. Michigan is still a beast, even if it hasn’t played anyone. Ohio State is still also a beast, even if it’s played only slightly more “anyones” than Michigan has.
Michigan State is still resting. Possibly for the second week in a row.
James Franklin still needs friends. Any friends. Honestly. Anybody. Call him.
Iowa is strong, which was expected.
Wisconsin is nasty, which kind of wasn’t.
Indiana can’t stop taking the ball away. Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats can’t stop playing like it’s 1981 and the sign outside Evanston reads: I-94, Northwestern 0.
Meanwhile, in Champaign, Ill., Saturday’s outcome — North Carolina 48, Illinois 25 — confirmed old, creeping doubts.
That Illini 52, Murray State 3 in Week 1 really was fool’s gold.
That quarterback Wes Lunt is just good enough to get NFL scouts excited, the same ones who saw a spark of something in running-for-his-life-Northwestern-quarterback-turned-Denver-Broncos-starter Trevor Siemian. And that, like Siemian, he’s still not good enough to win games against fast, physical opposition without a lot of help.
That a run defense that was all over the place last fall still can’t find a middle ground, dominating minnows (-10 rush yards allowed vs. Murray State) one week, then getting shredded by heavyweights (197 given up to North Carolina) the next.
That an elite defensive line can’t outsmart a veteran quarterback with good feet. Whenever the Orange Crush would close, Tar Heels junior signal-caller Mitch Trubisky either slipped to one side or dumped off to a hot read who’d found an empty space in which to camp out.
That third-down conversions — Illinois ranked No. 11 in the Big Ten in conversion percentage last fall (36.3 percent) and was just 7-for-17 Saturday — are still a throw of the dice, and those dice could land anywhere.
That when the occasion rises — North Carolina (1-1) is a legit division contender within its conference, and the Illini (1-1) at present are not — coach Lovie Smith doesn’t yet have the horses, or the mojo, to lift his roster to a level that can match it.
Whenever the Heels poured it on, the Illini demurred. Even tiny flecks of prosperity proved fleeting. With 53 seconds to go in the first quarter and the Illini up 14-10 Lunt took the shotgun snap and zigged.
Unfortunately, the ball in his hands somehow zagged.
It squirted to the ground like a wet bar of soap and the unforced fumble was pounced on by a pile of UNC defenders. The Heels scored two plays later to take the lead for good, 16-14.
Lunt was never quite the same after that. Nor, for that matter, were the hosts.
Which was a shame, given that the first half started and ended better than expected. On the third play of the night, Illinois tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn got loose and rambled up the right sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. With two seconds left in the second quarter and with his squad at the Illinois 2, leading 24-16, UNC coach Larry Fedora went for the touchdown, the kill shot, rather than the safe three. A slant was batted down in the end zone, giving the hosts a reprieve going into the break.
One that, in hindsight, was short-lived. And a sellout crowd — the first sellout in Champaign since November 2011 — wound up walking away asking old questions and grumbling old grumbles.
A total of 13 penalties for 99 yards? Five fumbles, including one very, very big one lost at the most brutal of times? The path to respectability might very well be knocking for The Fighting Lovies, and knocking soon. But they’re going to have to get the heck out of their own dang way first.