CHAMPAIGN - Clobbering Kent State and Western Illinois by a combined score of 96-3 is great and all. But ultimately, after two weeks, Illinois football is still in the same spot (2-0) that it was the previous two seasons.
So while Illini interim coach Bill Cubit preaches the "day-by-day" mantra -- like most coaches -- he and his players know Saturday's trip to North Carolina carries a lot more weight.
"It was nice to get these first two games going, especially with that shutout last week defensively," senior safety Clayton Fejedelem said. "Our offense has been explosive both weeks. But we definitely have something to prove from the last few years with our defense and just how good we can be. This game is definitely the first real test we're going to have this season. So we're really excited about it."
The Illini defense faces a much bigger test.
The North Carolina offense features five returning starters on the offensive line, including preseason All-America guard Landon Turner and another All-ACC candidate, Caleb Patterson; two wide receivers on Phil Steele's preseason All-ACC second team, 5-foot-10 Ryan Switzer and 6-foot-5 Quinshad Davis; and dual-threat quarterback (Marquise Williams) who set 18 UNC records in 2014.
Under third-year coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels average more than 425 yards per game of offense. This season, UNC is averaging 211.5 yards per game and 240 passing yards per game. And their offense runs at a high tempo.
"They just like to run a lot of plays," said Cubit, whose Illini opened as a 6.5-point underdog at UNC. "They're not a big check-off system. They just play at a high tempo. We got to keep our defensive linemen fresh."
The Illini defense has shown vast improvement through two weeks. They are allowing just 1.5 points per game (tied for lowest in the nationa) and rank in the top-5 nationally in first downs allowed (10.0), interceptions (5), total defense (193.0 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (61.3).
But they haven't been tested by a team its own size, a power-five conference team. Saturday will be the Illini defense's true measuring-stick game.
"It's a tone-setter," junior linebacker T.J. Neal said. "The first two games was great, but I think this game right here will let everyone know that the Fighting Illini is not playing [around] this year."
The Illini haven't won a nonconference road game since winning at Syracuse in 2007. Since then, the Illini have losses to Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Fresno State, Arizona State and Washington. The Tar Heels, who lost to South Carolina in their opener and beat North Carolina A&T 53-14 on Saturday.
The Tar Heels were picked to finish fifth in the ACC's seven-team Coastal Division, so UNC is not a goliath. But UNC provides Illinois with its toughest test -- and its biggest opportunity.
"We got our work cut out for us, but it's going to be fun," Cubit said. "We look at it as a great challenge.
"I think the kid are going to be really excited about going down there and seeing exactly where we're at."
"There's a process that has to go on. And if you look at the really big picture, at times you can get distracted and you can let that noise affect you. If everybody was out there and they didn't understand the game and they're listening to people outside, they wouldn't play as effective because there'd be some negative things in there. I always talk about, you have to have positive thoughts. Well where's the positive thoughts? Think about how you're going to make the play. Have the self-confidence that you can go make the play. Visualize success, so when we go through all those points, they see it."
- Bill Cubit, Illini interim head coach
Injury report: Clary, Heath out indefinitely
Senior fullback/H-Back Tim Clary is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. He will have surgery on Wednesday, but Cubit would not rule him out for the season.
Clary often was the Illini's lead blocker in short-yardage sets and had three catches for 25 yards so far this season.
"It's really a shame, because that's as good of football as I've seen him play in the three years I've been here," Cubit said.
Cubit said Nathan Echard will likely fill his role as a lead blocker and said that Ainslee Johnson could see more time. Also, tight end Tyler White could line up more in the backfield.
Zach Heath, a backup guard, suffered a knee sprain and will miss a few weeks, Cubit said.
"He's getting himself ready to get back into action," Cubit said. "He'll be in the pool today doing some things, getting some jogging today. Then it depends really on how far he's coming in. They'll take some x-rays to make sure it's still calcifying. It looks really good right now, but we'll make sure that we take it at a pace that when he comes back, he's ready to go 100 percent."
Senior receiver Justin Hardee will not play on Saturday, either. Hardee missed all of training camp and the first two games of the season after suffering a broken foot this offseason.
Cubit said plans with sophomore receiver Mikey Dudek, who suffered a torn ACL during the spring, emains the same. Dudek -- a Scout.com Freshman All-America selection last season -- is running and cutting but still has not taken any contact.
"They won't let him out there until he's 100 percent," Cubit said. "We don't need him out there unless he's 100. But he has looked really good. If you were a person coming off the street and saw him running, you wouldn't think anything is wrong with him. There's no limp. He's doing some light cutting to get him back. Certain guys, they just get back a little bit faster than certain other guys."
Some good news: Senior STAR Eric Finney will return to practice today after sitting out Saturday's game with a knee injury. Sophomore James Crawford started in Finney's place.
Fotu, Day still suspended
Also, defensive tackle Joe Fotu and safety Caleb Day will sit out one more week due to suspension.
"This will be their last week (suspended)," Cubit said.
The university has specific penalties (number of games suspended) for certain violations of team policy, though Cubit has not divulged exactly for what Day and Fotu were suspended.
With Fotu out, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti will remain at defensive tackle. With North Carolina's fast offensive tempo, he may play more than he played against Western Illinois.
"He went in there, and we thought he did some good things," Cubit said. "He's a big, strong body. You know, he's a 300-pound defensive lineman. If he can hold his point and let the linebackers run free, then he's done his job. We don't expect him to make a ton of tackles, but really it's hard to make a ton of tackles inside. You got to free up those guys in the back end, so we'll keep it simple for him."