5Illinois 52, Murray State 3
CHAMPAIGN - Kendrick Foster ran for a career-high 118 yards on just four carries, and Wes Lunt and Malik Turner connected for two touchdowns as Illinois (1-0) routed Murray State in Lovie Smith's Illini head coaching debut Saturday in front of 48,644 fans at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois took a 35-3 halftime lead behind Lunt's two first-quarter strikes to Turner of 5 and 68 yards, respectively.
Foster -- a junior backup who entered the game with 78 career rushing yards -- shined in the second quarter, reeling off two 56-yard touchdown runs.
Lunt finished the game 15-for-21 passing (to nine receivers) for 226 yards and three touchdowns. He and most of the starters sat for the fourth quarter. Turner had three catches for 83 yards.
On defense, Illinois picked off prolific Murray State passer KD Humphries on his first two possessions (Julian Hylton and Taylor Barton) and limited the Racers to 165 total yards, including minus-10 rushing yards on 26 carries.
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a graduate transfer from California, had 10 tackles (including a sack) in his Illini debut. Auburn graduate transfer Gimel President also had two sacks in his Illini debut.
The announced attendance was the largest Illini attendance for a home opener since 2010 (52,214 vs. Southern Illinois).
What it means
Illinois took care of business. The spread was 33 points, and Illinois covered it. Does this elevate expectations for the season? No. Murray State is a far inferior FCS opponent, and there's a reason even a program like Illinois never has lost to an FCS team. Most of what happened against the Racers won't translate to the Tar Heels in Week 2 or even in Week 3 against the Western Michigan Broncos, who upset Northwestern on Saturday. Saturday was a feel-good win for a fan base that finally had a feel-good offseason following Josh Whitman's stunning head coaching hire. A big opening win should create an even more feel-good atmosphere leading into Saturday's primetime showdown.
What went right
The Illini defense looked like Smith's typical Bears defenses: hyped up, confident and aggressive. Recent Illini defenses under Tim Banks seemed reactionary to offenses. This defense looks more reminiscent of former Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's aggressive nature. The Illini try to dictate their game on the opponent. The defensive line got consistent penetration and pressure (four of Illini's six sacks), and the defensive backs consistently jammed the Murray State receivers and tried to jump routes.
Lunt looked comfortable and efficient. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee put him in positions to succeed and also committed to the run (even when it was struggling to get going) to make the defense commit to defending it -- opening up room for Lunt's great arm.
Darius Mosely looked pretty effective as a punt returner. He returned one for 22 yards and returned another for a touchdown but it was called back. Also, kicker Chase McLaughlin made a 48-yard field goal -- a good sign since he admitted long distance isn't his strength.
The Illini backups got a lot of reps, a positive since there may not be many opportunities for them with such a tough schedule ahead. Reggie Corbin ran for 71 yards on seven carries, and Tre Nation ran for 47 yards on eight carries.
What went wrong
Despite 287 rushing yards and 7.2 yards per carry, Illinois struggled early to consistently get a push consistently in the run game, especially on the interior -- where all three interior players were making his first start. Ke'Shawn Vaughn averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. The Illini must run the ball effectively against opponents' their own size to have success this season.
Part of what makes Dawuane Smoot is his aggression. But he was too amped up on Saturday, committing three penalties. The Illini committed six penalties for 40 yards.
Star of the game
Kendrick Foster, RB: The redshirt junior running back transformed his body during the offseason, trimming his body fat from 16 to 11 percent. That's increased his quickness and breakaway speed. After sitting most of his first three years at Illinois, he looks like the No. 2 running back the Illini sorely need.
Illinois hosts No. 22 North Carolina, which is playing No. 18 Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday. The Illini lost to the Tar Heels 48-14 in Chapel Hill last season. North Carolina lost some key offensive players, including quarterback Marquise Williams, receiver Quinshad Davis and guard Landon Turner but return five other All-ACC performers on offense. The Tar Heels will be one of the most athletic teams Illinois plays this season.More than 50,000 fans are expected for the 6:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, which would be the most for a nonconference home game since the 2011 primetime win against Arizona State. We'll find out what the Illini are really made of on Saturrday.