CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Three plays into the fourth quarter last Saturday, Illinois was within a touchdown and a two-point conversion of North Carolina.
Over the next 14-plus minutes, first-year coach Lovie Smith learned a lot about his Illini and how far they have to go.
Illinois (1-1) fell apart over that final quarter, and ended up with a 48-23 loss in a game that was within reach even after a night of inconsistent play.
''We've made strides, we started fast,'' Smith said, referring to the 7-0 lead Illinois quickly opened on the Tar Heels. ''We as a football team have to be able to finish a football game.''
On Saturday, Illinois will face a team that has shown it can finish strong, particularly in its opening upset at Northwestern. Western Michigan (2-0) knocked off the Wildcats 22-21 , and comes to Champaign as a 3-point favorite.
The Broncos' fourth quarter at Northwestern was a how-to guide in one way to come from behind and close out a win.
The Broncos trailed 21-16 when they got the ball with just over 12 minutes to play. They put together a 12-play drive that ate up 6:35 and 75 yards and ended with a touchdown and a one-point lead.
Then Western Michigan forced a fumble at its own 1-yard line to take the ball back before grinding down the clock.
Illinois' finish against North Carolina was a lesson in how not to come back.
After pulling to within 31-23 on a touchdown pass from Wes Lunt to Malik Turner, Illinois fumbled twice (recovering both), committed four penalties (two were declined) and gave up 146 yards that included a crushing 62-yard touchdown run by Elijah Hood.
Those fumbles and the four others on the night by Illinois were ''concerning,'' Smith said.
But, he said the 25-point loss offered a chance to teach his team some things that the previous week's 52-3 win over Murray State did not.
''There's just no way to get some points across when you blow somebody out, simple as that,'' he said. ''From this game there were so many things for players to see, for us to see, how important every play is. And you can only get that through having a tough loss like this.''
Lunt blamed himself for much of what went wrong late in the North Carolina game. He had a rough night from start to finish, but was 3-10 after the fourth-quarter touchdown pass. Lunt also fumbled the ball on a sack.
''You know, it was an eight-point game in the fourth quarter. A play here and a play there could have tied it up,'' said Lunt, a senior.
But Smith emphasized that, however close Illinois might have been, the fourth quarter and the loss it guaranteed were the bottom line.
''We should have a bad, terrible feeling deep down inside until we play the next game,'' he said.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP
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