PREVIEW: North Carolina at Illinois

Illini aim for program-building win with ACC contender North Carolina in town for a primetime showdown.

North Carolina (0-1) at Illinois (1-0)

Time: 6:42 p.m. CT

TV: BTN - Eric Collins (play by play), J Leman (analyst) and Rick Pizzo (sidelines)

Series: North Carolina is 3-0 all-time against Illinois including a 48-14 win at Chapel Hill last year. The Tar Heels average margin of victory over the Illini is 27 points.

Vegas betting line: North Carolina (+7.5)

Last week: Illini defeated Murray State 52-3; North Carolina lost to No. 18 Georgia 33-24 at Georgia Dome

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Upon Further Review: Takeaways from Week One film against Murray State


Minus-10: Rushing yards allowed by Illinois against Murray State, a figure that leads the country after Week One

1: Career starts for UNC redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky

Plus-3: Illini's turnover margin after one week

3.44: Illini quarterback Wes Lunt's career touchdown-to-interception ratio at Illinois (31 touchdowns to nine interceptions)

6.0: Sacks for Illinois in the season opener, which ranks third nationally after one week

8.4: Yards per rushing attempt for North Carolina vs. Georgia in Week One

9: 2015 bowl teams on the Illini 2016 schedule, tied for fifth most in the nation

29.5: Rushing yards per attempt (on four carries) for Illini RB Kendrick Foster in the season opener against Murray State which broke a 61-year school record

40.7: Points per game last season for the North Carolina offense, which set an all-time school record

101: Penalty yards (on 13 penalties) for North Carolina in the season opener

121: Career starts for the North Carolina offensive line, giving the Tar Heels the nation's most experienced line

Tar Heels to watch

1. Mitch Trubisky, junior QB: The redshirt junior stuck it out at North Carolina despite years of sitting behind dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams. Trubisky is finally the starter and brings a much different element than Williams' Cam Newton Lite style. Trubisky is an accurate passer with a solidly strong arm. He also can move out of the pocket a bit and may be faster than Williams but is nowhere near as physical. Trubisky went 24-for-40 for 156 yards against Georgia, so he wasn't that efficient. He underthrew some of his receivers on deep routes -- missing some big-play opportunities to his gifted wideouts -- but the Georgia defensive backs also made some nice break ups. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound signal caller isn't as scary as Williams, but he seems like a trust-worthy manager of an explosive UNC offense. After Week One, the questions is whether he can make the big throws.

2. Elijah Hood, junior RB: The 6-foot, 230-pound running back is a load as Illinois experienced last season when he ran for 129 yards on 16 carries against the Illini. He's the type of pound-it-between-the-tackles running back Illinois has struggled to stop the past few seasons. While he may not have elite breakaway speed, he has the speed to break off large chunks. CBS Sports lists him as the No. 10 draft eligible running back in 2017. For some reason, he had just 10 carries (for 72 yards) against Georgia.

3. T.J. Logan, senior RB/KR: If Hood is the thunder of the North Carolina run game, Logan is the lightning. Logan ran for 80 yards on 13 carries against Georgia, including a 35-yard breakaway touchdown. He also returned the opening second-half kickoff 95 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Logan isn't that physical (though he's strong), but it's hard to hit him square with his elite speed.

4. Ryan Switzer, senior WR/PR: The 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior was a nightmare for Illinois last season, accumulating 168 punt return yards (including an 85-yard touchdown) and hauling in a 36-yard touchdown catch in the UNC rout. Switzer is short but simply electric with the ball in his hands. UNC will try to find a way to get the ball in his hands in many ways, including wide receiver screens, drag routes and fly patterns, to utilize his game-breaking speed and agility.

5. Mack Hollins, senior WR: The 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver missed the first half of the Georgia game due to a targeting penalty in UNC's bowl game. He is an athletic, long deep threat who has 16 career touchdowns and averages 20.7 yards per reception during his career.

6. Naz Jones, junior DT: A a third-team All-ACC selection last year, the 6-foot-5, 310- pound defensive tackle isn't the quickest penetrator, but he's a load to move and gets his hands up at the line of scrimmage.

7. Des Lawrence, senior CB: The 6-foot-1, 185-pound corner would be a good fit in Lovie Smith's defense. He's long and physical in both press coverage and against the run game. Lawrence ranked fourth in the ACC in passes defended per game (1.14 per game, 14 PBUs, 2 INTs in 12 games).

8. M.J. Stewart, junior CB: The 5-foot-11, 200-pound corner will switch between the perimeter and nickelback. He's fast and physical. He led the ACC in passes defended per game last season (1.50 per game, 14 PBUs, 4 INTs in 12 games).

Scouting the Tar Heels

Offense: North Carolina has a dynamic offense. A physical offensive line and Hood allow the Tar Heels to run over people, while Logan, Switzer and Hollins gives them explosion. The key is Trubisky. His underthrows cost the Tar Heels points in Week One. UNC will try to get Switzer in space. While press coverage could limit those opportunities, he has the potential to burn the defense deep so deep safety Taylor Barton will be key in limiting UNC's deep-strike capabilities. The battle in the trenches will be a great one. The Illini have one of the most disruptive front fours in the country while the Tar Heels have the most experienced o-line's in the country led by future NFL players Jon Heck (39 career starts) and Caleb Peterson (38 career starts). The Illini need the front four to be disruptive. And since they play a one-gap scheme, they can't have any missed assignments in the front seven against such a capable running team.

Defense: North Carolina has had one of the nation's worst defenses the past few seasons, especially against the run. They gave up 289 rushing yards against Georgia, but the Bulldogs feature one of the best running backs in the country in Nick Chubb. UNC is big up front -- so Illinois will have a test to move them -- but the Tar Heels don't have a lot of great pass rushers, so defensive coordinator Gene Chizik will get creative. They will disguise their coverages and blitz ... a lot! Chizik loves to blitz his corners off the edge and often will have his linebackers shift around the line of scrimmage pre-snap to confuse the offensive line and quarterback. UNC's defensive strength is its secondary. They like to play a lot of man, press coverage, so the unproven Illini receivers must find a way to get quick separation so Wes Lunt can get rid of it quickly. Chizik also will feature zone coverage on blitzes and use both one- and two-deep safety coverages. UNC's linebackers are the weakness. They struggle to wrap up and tackle at times. UNC's aggressive blitzing poses challenges but also opportunities.

Keys to the game

1. Average more than 5.0 yards per rush: Sure, Illinois ran for 287 yards in Week One against Murray State. But, yeah, it was against Murray State -- a slow, short and weak FCS defense. Illinois actually struggled to run early, though Garrick McGee said it was because he was too stubborn. He wanted to commit to the run, and Murray State had committed to stopping the run. Still, Illinois didn't dominate as much physically as they'd like to see. Three interior linemen were making their first career starts (Darta LeeGabe Megginson and Nick Allegretti), and two were playing in their first collegiate game (Megginson and Lee). Senior center Joe Spencer may return after missing last week with a knee injury. North Carolina ranked among the worst in the nation against the run last season, but they have some big bodies up front. Illinois must find some success against power-five opponents if its going to have success in the Big Ten. This is a good first test and averaging more than 5.0 yards per rush would open up a lot for Wes Lunt and McGee.

2. Keep North Carolina under 5.0 yards per rush: This may seem like a dream given that Georgia allowed UNC to rush for 8.9 yards per attempt. Which brings up the question of why Larry Fedora passed so much when UNC averaged 3.9 yards per pass against the Bulldogs -- maybe to prove that Trubisky could live up to his hype? UNC averaged 6.5 yards per rush against Illinois in last year's rout. Illinois' pass rush is unquestioned, but it needs to prove it can keep a physical team's run game in check.

3. Reign in UNC's return game: Switzer is a two-time All-American return man who has seven career punt return touchdowns, just one shy of tying the NCAA career record owned by Wes Welker and Antonio Perkins. Logan also is a dangerous return man who averaged 23.4 yards per kick return last season and took back the 95-yard touchdown against Georiga. Special teams, especially big returns, can change a game's momentum. Bob Ligashesky's coverage units looked really good against Murray State. They may have their biggest test of the season in Week Two. The Illini must be assignment sound in their lane coverage and fundamentally sound in their breakdown tackling.

Illini in the spotlight


Wes Lunt, QB: Chizik is going to throw everything he can at an Illini offensive line that features at least two first-year starters. He's going to press the inconsistent Illini wide receivers. Lunt wants to be known as one of the best quarterbacks in the country, show out for NFL scouts and, most importantly, lead Illinois to a big 2016 season and leave with a bit of a legacy. These are the types of games that can help him accomplish all those things. He's had some huge games against weaker opponents but has just two wins over power-five opponent teams as an Illini starter (Nebraska and Purdue last season). He must help his offensive line recognize blitzes. He must read the coverage and make the right decisions. He must continue to take care of the ball. And he must make some of those 'whoa' throws that he is capable of making. Simply, Illinois needs its star quarterback to play like a star quarterback.


Hardy Nickerson, LB: Part of the reason Illinois struggled so much against the run in recent seasons is that the linebackers didn't have enough speed and couldn't wrap up and finish tackles. Nickerson showed in Week One (11 tackles in three quarters) why his transfer earned so much hype. Nickerson is instinctive (he finds the ball quickly), has great range (covers sideline-to-sideline) and wraps up ball carriers in space (good tackling form). The defensive line should provide disruption, but each lineman is only responsible for a single gap. Nickerson and the linebackers must fill in the rest and contain Hood and Logan.


The last Illinois football game that carried so much hype? The Northwestern bowl play-in game of 2014 was met mostlywith a shrug by a fan base that had had enough of Tim Beckman. The 2011 Week Three showdown against Brock OsweilerVontaze Burfict and ranked Arizona State provided a primetime party for Illini fans. But this time, Illini fans almost unanimously support their coach and are more hopeful for the future than any time since the 2008 Rose Bowl. Fans want to buy in so much, proven by ticket sales -- which are at least smewhat close to a sell out (which hasn't happened at Illinois since Nov. 12, 2011 vs. Michigan). A win would raise expectations for 2016 and possibly expedite Illinois' recruiting efforts.

As if the game wasn't intriguing enough. North Carolina is the more experienced team with a recent winning pedigree (ACC Championship Game appearance last season) and a strong coaching staff. UNC is the deeper team with more proven offensive playmakers. But Illinois has some high-end talent too, especially on its defense, and an upgraded coaching staff. It's a game of strength (UNC offense) versus strength (Illini defense) and weakness (Illini offense) versus weakness (UNC defense). Which weakness is weaker? Which strength is stronger?

I'm closer than I thought to picking the upset. But North Carolina's offense is explosive and Illinois still must prove it can stop the run. And the offense still must prove it can run the ball. In a fun, competitive one...

North Carolina 31, Illinois 27

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