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Illini routed by North Carolina in first real test of season

North Carolina running back Elijah Hood races ahead of Illinois’ Clayton Fejedelem (20) and LaKeith Wall (22) for a 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. | Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP

BY AARON BEARD

Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Illinois’ fast start to the season hit a speed bump in its first road game.

The Fighting Illini’s offense managed one touchdown through three quarters, couldn’t stop North Carolina’s attack and gave up two huge plays on special teams in a 48-14 loss Saturday.

It was a bumpy follow-up to the first two games, in which Illinois (2-1) outscored two overmatched opponents by a combined 96-3.

‘‘We have got to show our kids what went wrong, where it’s at,’’ interim coach Bill Cubit said. ‘‘You’re not as bad as you think you are. You’re never as good as you think you are.’’

Josh Ferguson ran for 133 yards and a touchdown for the Illini, but the offense didn’t score its second touchdown until the final minute — long after the game had turned into a blowout.

Along the way, Illinois’ first drive reached the Tar Heels’ 2 before ending with a fourth-down incompletion, and another drive ended with a field-goal attempt plunking the upright.

Marquise Williams threw three touchdown passes and ran for 105 yards to lead a big offensive performance for North Carolina (2-1). The Tar Heels’ overhauled defense continued its improved play, and Ryan Switzer delivered two big punt returns — a 71-yarder in the second quarter and an 85-yarder for a touchdown in the fourth.

‘‘It wasn’t just offense,’’ Williams said. ‘‘All three [units]: offense, defense and special teams. To win, we need that every game.’’

North Carolina led 20-7 at halftime, then dominated the second half en route to its most lopsided victory against a power-conference opponent in five years. Williams shook off an early interception to throw for 203 yards before leaving the game with the Tar Heels ahead big early in the fourth quarter.

‘‘When you play these type of teams, you’ve got to take advantage of every situation,’’ Cubit said. ‘‘We didn’t. It deflates the sideline at times.’’

Much of the excitement for North Carolina focused on Switzer. He tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt returns for touchdowns as a freshman but didn’t have any as a sophomore last season.

Against the Illini, he finished with 168 punt-return yards to break a single-game school record that had stood since 1951.

‘‘I feel like we got that camel off our back as a punt-return unit,’’ Switzer said. ‘‘I’m excited to see what the rest of the season has in store for us.’’