After two games in the 2015 Illinois football season, people were asking about just how much improvement they had made since last season.
This past Saturday afternoon, they pretty much got their answer.
The Fighting Illini were roughed up in a big way, losing 48-14 to the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But, don't let the final score fool you; Illinois had chances in this game, they just didn't execute when they needed to.
Illinois had a chance to score early in the game, but chose to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a short field goal to take a quick lead. According to head coach Bill Cubit, the opportunities were there, but they just didn't take advantage of them.
"We dropped nine balls and had some penalties in situations that we couldn't have them", Cubit said at his weekly press conference on Monday about some of the reasons for the lopsided loss.
The running game, which was suspect through the first two games of the season, showed some signs of life against the Tar Heels, as senior running back Josh Ferguson gained 133 yards on 22 carries, including a 1 yard touchdown run. With his performance on Saturday, Ferguson eclipsed the 2000 yard mark for his Illini career, and becomes the 17th player in school history to reach that milestone.
Aside from the dropped passes, Cubit also mentioned that there were some mental lapses that happened at inopportune times during the game, and the absence of several key players was very evident on Saturday.
The losses of Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee really showed, as top receiver Marchie Murdock was held to just 49 yards on 7 catches by quarterback Wes Lunt, who completed 15 of 32 passes for 140 yards. Lunt did not throw a touchdown pass on the day, but did throw an interception,
"I'm not sure if it a mental thing with the guys who dropped passes, and there were some crucial penalties that we had when we didn't need them", Cubit added.
The loss to the Tar Heels extends the non-conference road losing streak to eight seasons, dating back to 2007, when the Illini defeated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
So, what lies ahead for Illinois as the pre-conference schedule wraps up this weekend? It really doesn't get any easier, as a high-powered Middle Tennessee State team comes into Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday (3:00 pm CT, ESPN News) to try and take down the Illini, who may have their tail between their legs after the blowout loss at North Carolina. The Blue Raiders come into the game with the Illini at 2-1 overall, and are coming off an impressive offensive performance against Charlotte, in which they won handily 73-14. Middle Tennessee State quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is the son of Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill, had a great day passing the ball, completing 23 of 27 passes for 369 yards and threw 5 touchdown passes. The Blue Raiders are one of the more prolific offenses in all of the FBS division, and will give the Illini their most stern test of a team not in one of the power five conferences.
The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their extended stay away from the cozy confines of Huff Hall this past weekend, when they played out west in the Sun Devil Invitational, hosted by Arizona State. The Illini defeated Texas Southern in 3 straight games, and needed an additional game to dispatch UNLV 3-1. Kevin Hambly's squad then took on the host Sun Devils, and played a tough match before falling in five games, 3-2. The Illini will continue their road swing this coming weekend when they travel to the opposite coast to battle the Big Ten's newest teams, Maryland and Rutgers for the start of conference play. The Illini wrapped up the non-conference portion of the season with a 9-2 record, and enter Big Ten play as the #9 ranked team in the latest AVCA rankings. The match against Maryland on Friday night will be televised on the Big Ten Network and will begin at 6:00 pm CT. The match against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday evening will also begin at 6:00 pm central time, but will not be televised.
Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team opened up Big Ten play this past weekend, and it didn't start off very well for them. On Friday evening, the Illini ttaveled to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the Hoosiers, and ended up getting a 0-0 tie. On Sunday, the Illini made the trip up to West Lafayette to battle Purdue, and lost 3-1. The lone Illini goal was scored by Katie Murray, which occurred in the 88th minute of action. This week, the Illini continue their trek through the Big Ten when they return home to face Rutgers on Thursday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN). Then, after a couple of days off, the Illini will welcome the other newcomer to the Big Ten, the Maryland Terrapins on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV). The Illini enter play this week with a 6-2-1 overall record, but just 0-1-1 in Big Ten play.