Series History: North Carolina leads the series, 2-0
Getting to know Illinois
The Fighting Illini enters the game on a two-game winning streak, outscoring their first two opponents by a combined 96-3. Illinois’ hot start is especially surprising considering that the program ousted its head coach, Tim Beckman, just one week before its season opener. The team has rallied around interim head coach Bill Cubit since then and dominated its first two opponents, even if the competition has been subpar.
The Illinois offense ranks 12th in the nation in scoring (48 points per game) and will match up against a North Carolina defense that ranks 32nd in the nation, giving up 15.5 points per game. Junior quarterback Wes Lunt has played remarkably efficiently this season, completing almost 68% of his passes this season for 478 yards and five touchdowns. Lunt is the best quarterback that the Tar Heels have seen this season, and he will provide the first true test for a defense that has delivered promising early returns.
Lunt benefits from a talented top wide receiver in senior Geronimo Allison. Allison has caught 10 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown in 2015.
In the backfield, senior running back Josh Ferguson and freshman running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn have split carries fairly evenly. Ferguson leads the duo with 115 yards and two touchdowns, while Vaughn has added 96 yards and two touchdowns.
The Illinois offense resembles a hybrid of the first two teams that North Carolina played this year. It possesses a threatening wide receiver (similar to South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper), as well as a dangerous running back (N.C. A&T’s Tarik Cohen). It will be intriguing to see if the experience the team had against these players will play into how it fares against Illinois.
The Fighting Illini rank fourth in the nation in total defense, allowing just 2.9 yards per play. North Carolina’s offense, on the other hand, averages over 6.6 yards per snap. Senior linebacker Mason Monheim leads the unit with 11 tackles (one for a loss) and an interception. Junior linebacker T.J. Neal has also made his presence felt for the Illinois defense, contributing 12 tackles, two of which were for a loss of yards.
The biggest flaw, if there is one in a defense that has given up three points in two games, on this side of the ball is Illinois’ inability to get to the quarterback. The Fighting Illini have recorded just one sack on the season. They’ll go up against an experienced North Carolina offensive line, and certainly one that is better than the competition Illinois has seen this season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get prepared for Illinois. Offensively they’ve scored a lot of points in the two games they’ve played this year. The quarterback has played really well. Defensively, they haven’t given up a touchdown this year. They’ve given up three points. They’re going to come in here sky high and feeling good about themselves, as they should. They’ve got a lot of confidence right now, and we’ve got to make sure we have a great week of practice and preparation.” – UNC head coach Larry Fedora
“If you give him time, and he gets on rhythm, he can shred your defense.” – UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik on Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt
“It’s a tone-setter. The first two games were great, but I think this game right here will let everyone know that the Fighting Illini are not playing [around] this year.” – Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal
Matchup To Watch
Wes Lunt vs. UNC’s secondary
The aforementioned Lunt is the first true passing threat that UNC’s North secondary has encountered. He has a legitimate weapon in Geronimo Allison and he has an accurate arm (67.7 completion percentage). On top of that, he’s only been sacked once this season, so considering that he is facing a defensive line that has failed to adequately rush the passer, Lunt could have ample time in the backfield to make decisions.
It will also be intriguing to see how the North Carolina secondary works the Malik Simmons into the rotation. Simmons is eligible to play after serving a two-game suspension, and while he will not start, it’s not difficult to envision him taking the field for the Tar Heels. The impressive play of safety Donnie Miles and cornerback M.J. Stewart has helped solidify the defensive backfield along with veterans Des Lawrence and Brian Walker at cornerback and Sam Smiley at safety.