Loss exposes holes in Illinois defense
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) For the first two games of this season, the Illinois defense provided something that had been missing for a while in Champaign: a wall that kept the opposition off the scoreboard.
At North Carolina, playing against a Power Five school for the first time this fall, that defense looked more familiar.
The Tar Heels rolled up 471 yards on the way to a 48-14 win over Illinois (2-1) that is a concern with high-scoring Middle Tennessee State coming to town Saturday.
A big part of the problem, according to Illinois coach Bill Cubit, was the leap in competition Illinois made from Kent State and Western Illinois over the season's first two weeks to the Tar Heels. And part of it, he said, was pure deja vu.
''Everything you kind of saw the last couple of years kind of creeped right back,'' said the interim head coach, who took over when Tim Beckman was fired late last month.
Bad tackling was a problem. Illinois also forced just one turnover after forcing six the first two weeks. And North Carolina, already leading 20-7, was able to score four touchdowns without even a hint of being stopped over a nine-minute span.
The last of those Tar Heel touchdowns came on an 85-yard punt return, but the other three were all on drives of at least 59 yards and none of them longer than six plays. North Carolina averaged 13.6 yards a play on those drives.
As Cubit pointed out before North Carolina game, blowouts over the first two opponents let the Illini play their bench early. But against the Tar Heels' hurry-up offense, those defensive starters had to stay on the field much longer - on a humid, 82-degree day.
''Some of our first-team starters only got like 25 snaps (over the first two games), and now all the sudden you're playing (63) snaps against a Power Five team,'' Cubit said.
The fatigue, he said, made his defense less sharp, enough to miss tackles or let Tar Heels run through them.
''You're an inch off, you might as well be about 3 yards off because you're not going to make the play,'' he said.
Middle Tennessee (2-1) is averaging 51 points a game, and has rolled to 70 or more twice. The only exception was a 37-10 loss to Alabama.
Cubit says his defense should be just a little deeper this week, which he hopes will help.
Senior defensive lineman Joe Fotu will play his first game after missing the first three due to an unspecified team-rules violation, strengthening a thin rotation of defensive linemen. And in the secondary, safeties Clayton Fejedelem and Taylor Barton should get a little more relief with the return of Caleb Day from his own three-game suspension.