Highlights from a full late-summer, early-fall Saturday in Champaign: The atmosphere, for one, amid Illinois' first sellout at Memorial Stadium since 2011. Orange everywhere. Festive mood and scene, especially before kickoff against North Carolina.
The endless corn field and wind turbines that cover the landscape on the drive down from Chicago. Like driving through a Bob Ross painting, if he painted rural American Interstate scenes. And as a bonus: The small high school football stadiums that stand next to the highway, little pieces of sporting Americana.
And oh, and Mitch Trubisky broke out of “that shell a little bit,” Elijah Hood said, during the Tar Heels' 48-23 victory against the Fighting Illini. That was one several positives for the Tar Heels on Saturday night. Let's get to it on the morning after …
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--Trubisky justified the preseason hype and high expectations.
No, he wasn't perfect. There were some overthrows, some passes that could have been sharper. Still, Trubisky on Saturday was much more the Trubisky everyone expected to see from the start, beginning with the season-opener last weekend against Georgia. After faltering in that game, Trubisky rebounded and completed 19 of his 24 attempts for 265 yards and four touchdowns – two passing, two running. Remember the sequence, too, that got him going.
--The offensive balance.
The disparity between running plays and passing generated a lot of attention, all of it negative, after UNC's loss against Georgia last weekend. In that game, UNC passed twice as often as it ran, despite running twice as effectively as it passed. At Illinois the Tar Heels ran 37 times and passed 25 – a ratio that is probably more conducive to success. It certainly was on Saturday night. UNC made a point to stick with the run, as coach Larry Fedora described afterward.
THE NOT-SO GOOD
--Missed opportunities with would-be turnovers.
The oddest stat of the game might have been this: Six fumbles for Illinois, one fumble recovery for UNC. Fedora made a point to share his displeasure about his team's inability to convert turnover opportunities into actual turnovers, and in a closer game something like that could have come back to haunt. It wasn't a closer game, though. It was one that UNC mostly controlled, though had the Tar Heels recovered another fumble or two then maybe they put away earlier than they did.
--The failure to score at the end of the first half.
With two seconds remaining in the first half, UNC faced a third-and-1 from the Illinois' 2-yard line. Instead of taking the (essentially) guaranteed three points with a field goal, Fedora elected to go for the touchdown. Trubisky's pass to Mack Hollins fell incomplete in the end zone. Fedora's motivations were obvious enough: He was trying to punctuate the first half with a dramatic statement on the road. Said Elijah Hood: “I have no problem with it. We're being aggressive, we're playing football. We're trying to win. So things like that – you've got to take chances if you want to win a game.”
-Allowing a long touchdown run on the third offensive play.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 65-yard touchdown run on the third offensive play of the game looked foreboding. Seven days after allowing nearly 300 yards rushing against Georgia, here it was again: another breakdown for the Tar Heels run defense. Naz Jones, UNC's junior defensive tackle, said later that there was miscommunication between the defensive line and the linebackers. Vaughn cut through an expansive hole on the right side of the line and ran untouched into the end zone. Outside of that play, UNC allowed 117 yards rushing on 32 carries – a positive sign for its defense.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tar Heels needed a strong response, in a variety of ways, after what happened in Week 1 against Georgia. Mission accomplished both for UNC and especially for Trubisky, who'd endured a difficult week of self-criticism before playing closer to his potential on Saturday night.