CHAMPAIGN – Even the almost always reserved Lovie Smith isn't downplaying this one.
Saturday's sunset showdown with North Carolina (0-1) is a big one – at least from the Illinois (1-0) perspective.
“It's early in the year, but for us, this is a big game,” Smith said at his weekly Monday press conference. “I don't know how North Carolina's looking at the game with the way they beat us up last year, but for us, it's a big game. A true measuring stick to see where we are.”
Last year's trip to Chapel Hill was a tape-measure game as well. And the Illini didn't stand very tall. Receiver drops and inability to stop the UNC run game – as well as dangerous receiver/return man Ryan Switzer – crushed the Illini in a 48-14 loss.
That's par for the course in the historical series between two historically basketball-proud programs. Illinois is 0-3 all-time against the Tar Heels with an average margin of defeat of 27 points
But Smith and a 52-3 dominant win over Murray State has Illinois fans feeling festive. On Saturday, Illinois drew 48,644, the most for an opener since 2010. More than 50,000 fans are expected for Saturday's 6:42 p.m. kickoff, which would be the first non-conference Illinois home game to top 50,000 since Illinois defeated Brock Osweiler, Vontaze Burfict and a ranked Arizona State team in 2011.
“To our students who showed up, I thought you were outstanding,” Smith said. “I team felt them from the start and throughout. To our fans that showed up too. For Memorial Stadium to be that home field that we need, we'll need that energy that we had this past week. We know that will continue.”
But Illinois doesn't have such easy prey this week. It is facing a different animal on Saturday: a more experienced, stronger, faster, fiercer predator – trained by lauded, former Illini strength coach Lou Hernandez, who helped chisel several pros with the Illini under Ron Zook.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora lost quarterback Marquese Williams, guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis but returns six First- or Second-Team conference players from last season's ACC Coastal Division champions, including Switzer, running back Elijah Hood, guard Caleb Peterson, tackle Jon Heck, receiver Mack Hollins and cornerback M.J. Stewart.
The Tar Heels fell to No. 18 Georgia 33-24 in their opener at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, but the Bulldogs are expected to be a contender in the SEC.
“There's a type of football that you expect from (North Carolina): a lot of good athletes, well-coached,” Smith said. “Everything that you look for in having a successful program, that's what we see. They played a good football game this past week. They had a good Georgia team down by 10 points in the third quarter. So we know who we're seeing this week.”
Smith said despite a lopsided score, Week One gave the Illini plenty to correct including “too many critical penalties.” The FCS opponent tempers too much enthusiasm.
Illinois held Murray State to minus-10 yards, but what can they do against North Carolina's physical attack?
The Illini offense put up 52 points, but what can it do against a defense with ACC-contender strength and speed?
The Illini are eager to find out more about themselves in this showdown. But Saturday also is an Illini showcase for thousands of fans hoping for quick improvement under Smith – and for the dozens of recruits Illinois is bringing in to experience the atmosphere.
“You get a chance to show more people what you have as a team, so I know we're excited about this night game,” Smith said. “We're excited about the gameday atmosphere. We keep talking about having a home-field advantage here. Part of that is the whole experience that you have. It should be a special one this week.
“To see how we match up against a better football team with a bit more of a spotlight on us, that's the goal. We're excited about taking that next step.”
Spencer expected back; Lee, Fagan 'decent'
Smith said senior center Joe Spencer was “close to playing last week” with what is a short-term knee injury. The Illini coach sounds optimistic that Spencer will be ready to go against North Carolina.
“Hopefully, we'll have him this week ready to go,” Smith said. “We'll need all the troops ready to go.”
With Spencer out, redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti move to center and true freshman Darta Lee earned the start – becoming the first UI true freshman offensive lineman to start an opener since 1995. Midway through the second quarter, Lee was replaced by junior Jordan Fagan.
Lee returned to guard late in the game with Fagan shifting to tackle.
“I thought they filled in well,” Smith said. “Two players who haven't played a lot. Darta, a true freshman. I don't know how many true freshmen we played, but we played a few. That's quite a bit that goes into a freshman playing in their first game. Darta did a decent job. Fagan also. That's why playing a game like that where you had an injury that forced guys into action, we needed to see how they'd respond. And they responded well.”
McGee: 'Got to get cleaned up' fundamentally
Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee's offense put up 52 points, amassed 515 yards (including 287 on the ground) and did not commit a turnover on Saturday. But on Monday, he was ready with a list of corrections for his team to make before Week Two.
“We grade technique and our technique grades were not very high, so fundamentally, we got to get cleaned up before Saturday," McGee said. "Every position. Wes (Lunt) included. Just about proper steps, proper angles, playing with the proper leverage, not too high so you can use all your power. Quarterback drops, timing up with routes down the field so that when the routes break open, he's set and ready to go. He can't be set before the route develops, it'll feel like you're holding the ball. The route technique, there's certain angles you have to take. You can't be compressed too tight. The tight ends and tackles working together, keeping their shoulders square, their hips together. Just a lot of technique stuff that we have to get cleaned up.”
Watch more of McGee's Week One self-analysis and preview of North Carolina below.
Nickerson: 'A lot of good things' in Week One win
Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson was much more positive. And why wouldn't he be?
His Illinois defense held Murray State to 2.7 yards per play and minus-10 rushing yards, while also sacking talented passer KD Humphries six times.
“There were a lot of good things in the game on Saturday, a lot of things we obviously want to build upon.
“I think how we played the run game, defensively. Murray State's a team, they're going to put a lot of points on a lot of people. They have the ability to move football. To be able to go out there and limit their run game to nothing was pretty impressive.”
Given how much the Illini defensive staff preaches takeaways, Nickerson may have been happiest that his team had two interceptions on the first two defensive possessions of the game (and recovered a fumble later).
“I don't know if you could've written it any better,” Nickerson said. “We talk about takeaway every day. It's part of our DNA. To be able to go out and get two early was huge for us.”
Watch more of Nickerson's Week One self-analysis and preview of North Carolina below.