Illinois (2-0) at North Carolina (1-1)
Time: 11 a.m. CT, Saturday, Sept. 19
TV: ESPN2 - Beth Mowins (play-by-play), Anthony Becht (color) and Paul Carcaterra (sideline)
Last week: Illini defeated Western Illinois 44-0; UNC defeated North Carolina A&T 53-14
All-time series: UNC leads the series 2-0 (27-0 UNC in Champaign in 1971 and 34-14 UNC in Chapel Hill in 1987)
Vegas betting line: UNC (-9.5)
- 1.5: Points per game allowed by the Illini through two games, tied for lowest in the FBS.
- 3: Taylor Barton interceptions through two games, making him the first Illini since Terry Hawthorne to intercept three passes in a season. No Illini has intercepted more than three interceptions since Kevin Mitchell had five interceptions in 2007.
- 4-for-4: Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski's field-goal accuracy through two games, one season after finishing 3-for-6.
- 7: Rushing yards Josh Ferguson needs to become the 17th player in program history to top 2,000 career rushing yards.
- 19-to-4: Wes Lunt's touchdown-to-interception ratio in 10 games with the Illini.
- 116: Kick return yards senior V'Angelo Bentley needs to break Pierre Thomas' Illini record of 1,495 career kick return yards.
- 2007: Last time the Illini won a nonconference road game (41-20 at Syracuse). Since then, Illinois has lost on the road to Western Michigan (23-17 in 2008), Cincinnati (49-36 in 2009), Fresno State (25-23 in 2010), Arizona State (45-14 in 2012) and Washingotn (44-19 in 2014).
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Big Ten Power Rankings: Illini hold steady at No. 8
UNC players to watch
1. Marquise Williams, QB: The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior has some similarities to former Illini Juice Williams, though the Tar Heels QB is more accurate. Williams is dangerous on the ground (1,572 rushing yards) and the air (5,336 yards) and will own a bunch of Tar Heels quarterback records by the end of the season. His three-interception game against South Carolina in Week 1 was more of an outlier for his career, as he had a 37-to-15 TD/INT ratio entering the season.
2. Elijah Hood, RB: The 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore (194 rushings yards) is averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Scout ranked him the No. 55 prospect in the nation in the Class of 2014. The former five-star prospect is a tough runner with a good burst.
3. Bug Howard, WR: Senior Quinshad Davis (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) is one touchdown away from passing Hakeem Nicks as the UNC all-time leader in TD receptions and is dangerous. But Howard (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) is an even bigger play threat, accumulating eight catches for 151 yards and a TD so far this season. The smaller Illini cornerbacks will have to play big against the tall Tar Heels receivers.
4. Ryan Switzer, WR: The 5-foot-10 junior takes advantage of all the focus on Davis and Howard, accumulating 61 catches for 727 yards last season. He's also a very dangerous punt returner, earning All-America honors in 2013 after returning five punts for touchdowns.
5. Landon Turner, RG: The 6-foot-4, 325-pound preseason All-American has started 30 games at UNC and is projected to be selected in the top-four rounds of the NFL Draft.
6. Nazair Jones, DT: Though he is still developing, the 6-foot-5, 295-pound redshirt sophomore (8 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss) will be a massive handful for the Illini interior offensive linemen.
7. Shakeel Rashad, LB: The North Carolina defense lacks playmakers, and Rashad might be the closest thing to one. The senior was named ACC Linebacker of the Week after forcing a fumble, intercepting a pass and breaking up a pass in last week's 53-14 rout of North Carolina A&T.
Keys to the game
1. Apply pressure: The Illini defense has been dominant so far this season, allowing a nation-low 1.5 points per game. But if you had to nit-pick, it's that the Illini have just one sack on 64 opponent pass attempts. That sack percentage (2.44) ranks 102nd of 128 FBS teams. Like most quarterbacks, Williams doesn't play as well when pressured. So the Illini, especially junior LEO Dawuane Smoot, need to make the opposing quarterback more uncomfortable. But they also must contain Williams on his impromptu scrambles out of the pocket.
2. Long drives: The Illinois first-string defense played just 21 snaps last week, Bill Cubit said. UNC's up-tempo offense may top that in the first quarter as Larry Fedora's offense averaged 78.2 plays per game last season (24th among 128 FBS teams). You can't expect the Illini to allow just four first downs against a good ACC offense, so the Illini depth will be tested, especially at defensive tackle (where offensive lineman Nick Allegretti will get reps). The Illini offense can helps its defensive counterparts get some breathers with long, extended drives. QB Wes Lunt led five drives of 10 plays or more last week, allowing the Illini to eat up 23 of 30 first-half minutes. The Illini have quick-strike scoring ability and Lunt can wear opposing defenses down when the Illini also go up-tempo, so it shouldn't neuter those strengths. But Cubit may slow it down on a few drives if the defense needs a break.
3. Win the game of takeaway: "Win the turnover battle" sometimes feels like a lazy key to the game. But when you're an underdog, less talented (based on the recent recruiting rankings) and on the road, finishing with a positive turnover margine feels like a must. The Illini have six takeaways in the first two games, but also had four turnovers last week (three fumbles). The defense must take advantage of any sloppy moments from UNC, and the offense must tuck away the ball for Illinois to have the best chance to pull off the upset.
Picks to click
Geronimo Allison, WR: This game may turn into a shootout, and it wouldn't surprise if Lunt topped 35-40 pass attempts. If so, Allison is the likely beneficiary. With Mike Dudek out with injury, Lunt trusts the 6-foot-3 senior more than any other target (though senior running back Josh Ferguson is up there too). Lunt and Allison are a near-perfect combination. Lunt has the accuracy to put the ball only where the athletic Allison's long wingspan can reach (often on back-shoulder throws). Allison's best game last season came at Washington, and is difficult to defend for any opponent (even 6-foot-1 UNC junior CB Des Lawrence). UNC's defensive line has struggled to pressure the quarterback, so Lunt may have some time in the pocket to do damage and find his most dangerous target.
Mason Monheim, LB: Big-time players make big-time plays. Is Monheim a big-time player? He made the big defensive clincher (an INT return TD) against Northwestern last year to clinch bowl eligibility. While he lacks great speed, Monheim's 37 consecutive starts give him a certain savvy few players possess. While it's unclear if Illinois will use a "spy" on Williams, Monheim -- the weakside linebacker -- must keep an eye on Williams. Expect the Illini senior to either make a big stop on a Williams' scramble or to read the QB's eyes and have a shot at a pick.
This one was tough. I do think the Illini have made great strides and couldn't have done much more right in its first two blowout wins, outscoring its opponents 96-3. But I guess I still need to see the defense stop a potent offense before I completely buy in. North Carolina's offense has some thoroughbreads, and I still have my doubts that Illinois can match up with them or catch up to them. The Illini offense is legit, despite a lack of a great run game. Lunt will face much more pressure this week, but expect him to have another big day against a shaky UNC defense. I foresee a shootout. UNC is not a goliath, and Illinois has the talent and experience to win, but they just haven't won these games in recent seasons. A win like this would be a true sign of progress for the program and the defense -- and likely vault Cubit from a possible long-term solution to the leading candidate. Cubit appears to have this team better-equipped to win these types of games than in previous seasons. But after so many years of nonconference clunkers on the road, I have to see it before I believe it -- and you can post that inside the Illini locker room.
North Carolina 35, Illinois 31