CHAMPAIGN — All the party favors were in place.
Memorial Stadium was full Saturday night for the first time since 2011. The crowd came resplendent in orange, as did the Illini football team. Orange jerseys. Orange pants. Orange helmets.
The lights were bright and the marching band never sounded better.
Recruits were lined up everywhere hoping to see something special.
All the Illini needed to do to complete a night to remember was play a solid, smart football game against a very good North Carolina team. But Illinois could not fill that part of the order, killing itself with penalties and miscues and failing to measure up when it was time to match North Carolina’s big plays.
North Carolina (1-1) scored 17 unanswered points in the first half to take charge, then ripped off another 17 straight to close out the game in the fourth quarter. The result was a 48-23 North Carolina victory.
Illinois’ goal was to be within striking distance in the fourth quarter then hope for some late-game magic that might help finish the upset.
And in a sense, that was a possibility since the Illini trailed 31-23 early in the final period after Wes Lunt had found Malik Turner with a 7-yard touchdown pass. That’s a one-possession game.
But North Carolina was the team with a finishing kick, scoring the game’s final 17 points. Elijah Hood scored on fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 7 and 62 yards and a 41-yard field goal by Nick Weiler capped the North Carolina scoring.
In the end, coach Lovie Smith knew his team had shown it’s not quite ready to deliver in prime time.
“We’ve played better and we’ve practiced better than we played tonight,” Smith said. “Give North Carolina credit, too. They played well in all three phases and kept us off-balance with the run and pass.
“We know we need to take the ball away and we didn’t do that tonight. Offensively we couldn’t get anything consistently done. And the penalties (13 for 99 yards) really hurt us. We’re a more disciplined football team than that. It seemed like every one of those penalties gave them momentum.
“I thought we were ready for prime time but we’re not quite there yet. But we’ll get there.”
Illinois (1-1) came out looking like it was more than ready for prime time. It could not have asked for more perfect start.
After returning the opening kickoff to the 20, Lunt completed hits first two passes for 15 yards, then handed the ball to Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who ripped through a gaping hole in the right side of the line and raced 65 yards for a touchdown.
Vaughn was untouched and barely chased as he rumbled all the way to the end zone.
North Carolina answered on its second possession. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky ran for 39 yards to take the ball to the Illini 7 and two plays later he dove over from one yard out to tie the game, 7-7.
And when North Carolina fumbled a punt, Illinois’ Caleb Day recovered and the Illini quickly answered back. A short pass from Lunt to Kendrick Foster resulted in a 15-yard touchdown that gave Illinois a seven-point lead again, 14-7.
That’s when North Carolina started making big plays and when Illinois started making big mistakes and the result was 17 unanswered points that gave the Tar Heels a 24-14 lead.
A 58-yard kickoff return by T.J. Logan started the turnaround for North Carolina. That set up a 49-yard field goal by Weiler that cut the Illini lead to 14-10.
It didn’t take long for Illinois to make another mistake. Lunt dropped back to pass and felt North Carolina’s pass rush closing in on him. Long before contact was made, Lunt simply dropped the ball and the Tar Heels’ recovered on the Illini 19.
Two plays later quarterback Mitch Trubisky ran it in from six yards out and North Carolina had its first lead 17-14 with 30 seconds to go in the opening quarter.
Lunt pointed the finger at himself when asked what he thought was the turning point.
“I think it was my fumble that they recovered,” he said. “That kind of turned the tides for them.