My mother used to say, "A bad beginning makes for a good ending." For UNC and its senior quarterback Marquise Williams, that was certainly true against Illinois on Saturday.
The Illini came into the game undefeated and having outscored two hapless foes by a combined score of 96-3. They took the opening kickoff in Kenan Stadium and met little resistance from the Carolina defense until the Tar Heels had their backs against the goal line. UNC held on fourth down and denied Illinois a score in the opening salvo of what would become a 48-14 Carolina blowout.
Meanwhile Williams also had a shaky start with poor throws, bad reads, and happy feet in the pocket, culminating in an ill-advised, drive-killing interception in Illinois territory. Williams' inconsistent 1st quarter play led one highly intelligent and insightful UNC analyst to suggest this on Twitter:
And I think we have Bad Quise playing for the Heels today.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) September 19, 2015
Not so fast, my friend.
Williams shook off the cobwebs through the air and on the ground to jump start the UNC offense. Meanwhile the Carolina defense continues to impress through its improvement over last season's dumpster fire, and the Tar Heels looked very good on special teams to put together its most complete effort in all three phases in years. Under Larry Fedora, offensive fireworks have usually been the norm, and it's not been uncommon to see special teams scores or even defensive touchdowns despite their usual foibles. But Saturday's effort against a Big 10 team is the first thing that has looked like whole-team progress in a long while, and that has been refreshing.
So with those positive feels in mind, here is this week's GBU Report:
Marquise Williams: As mentioned above, Williams shook off a worrisome beginning to the game to go 17-24 for 203 yards passing and three touchdowns against the one interception. He also had 105 yards rushing on only nine carries.
Ryan Switzer: Hey, look who can return kicks for touchdowns again. After tying an NCAA record for kick return touchdowns as a freshman, Switzer had been skunked in that area until yesterday. Switzer returned one punt 85 yards for a touchdown and another 71 yards with the punter saving yet another touchdown. For the game, Switzer set a school record for punt return yards in a game with 168. He also caught a 34-yard touchdown pass.
Quinshad Davis: All he does is catch touchdown passes. Davis became UNC's career touchdown pass receptions leader, passing Hakeem Nicks on a 9-yard reception from Williams in the second quarter. For the day, Davis had five catches for 58 yards.
Elijah Hood: Just another day at the office for Hood with 129 yards and a touchdown on only 16 carries. He is good at football.
Nick Weiler: It's neck-and-neck for the most amazing transformation from 2014 to 2015: UNC's defense or its kicking game. Weiler remained perfect on the season, going 6-6 on PATs and 2-2 on field goals, including a 48-yarder. We have reached the point where I no longer laugh at the green "field goal range" marker on ESPN.
Team Defense: Again in the transformation department is the fact that just one season after a record-setting awful defensive season, UNC is allowing only two touchdowns per game. UNC forced seven Illinois punts and held on the crucial fourth down inside the five on the first possession.
Defensive Line: As phenomenal as the defensive transformation has been, the defensive line play has been soft at best. This group was able to not put any significant pressure on Illini quarterback Wes Lunt, and gave up a healthy five yards per rush to the Illinois ground game.
Attendance: The announced attendance on a gorgeous September afternoon was a paltry 41,000, or roughly 2/3 of Kenan's capacity. And that is the announced attendance. Granted Illinois is not a sexy opponent but it is a significant one, as opposed to the FCS teams that sandwich this game. And Carolina's penchant for drawing poorly-attended noon games is almost the stuff of legend (while dog games like Virginia Tech versus a pretty bad ECU team get a 3:30 slot). But this has the potential to be a pretty decent UNC team and people need to come out and watch it.
This was a game that most folks had plotted as a win on UNC's schedule before the season began, and Illinois is not a great team, despite their two blowout wins coming in. But for the Heels to simply dominate the game and rout a Power 5 opponent is a pleasant surprise. These are the kind of games you need to win if your program has turned the corner, and winning comfortably is an added bonus. It doesn't make the sting of missing the opportunity against a clearly slumping SCAR team from two weeks ago any better, but Carolina has improved week-over-week and will need to keep improving with Georgia Tech on the horizon in two weeks. But for now UNC fans can bask in a well-earned victory.