CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Larry Fedora spent his time with the media this week emphasizing the quality of Saturday’s opponent. The fourth-year UNC head coach told reporters on multiple occasions that Illinois is the best team his coaching staff has seen on film this season.
This game was largely an afterthought during the offseason for UNC fans, a game wedged between a pair of FCS opponents with season-defining games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech serving as bookends.
However, the similarities between these programs are abundant. Both teams posted 6-7 records by pairing an explosive offense with a middling defense in 2014, and both teams returned a wealth of starters with high expectations for 2015.
As a result, Saturday’s matchup, the first meeting between these programs since 1987, will provide a litmus test of sorts for both Fedora and Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit, who was elevated from his offensive coordinator role after former head coach Tim Beckman was fired eight days before the season opener.
UNC is favored by eight points over the Illini. The Tar Heels have lost six games during the Fedora era when favored by five points or more. Four of those losses have come at home.
“This will be the best team we've played up to this point,” Fedora said. “We'll get to see where we really are because I think our guys feel good about what they've done, and I think they feel good about where we're at.”
Illinois arrives in Chapel Hill with a 2-0 record and impressive wins over inferior opponents in Kent State (52-3) and Western Illinois (44-0). The Illinois administration fired Beckman for mishandling athletes’ injuries, and that decision, despite coming so close to the start of the season, has served as a rallying point for the Illini players.
"It was nice to get these first two games going, especially with that shutout last week defensively," Illinois senior safety Clayton Fejedelem said. "Our offense has been explosive both weeks, but we definitely have something to prove from the last few years with our defense and just how good we can be. This game is definitely the first real test we're going to have this season, so we're really excited about it."
The Illini defense have yet to encounter an offense with the potency of Fedora’s HUNH scheme. Senior quarterback Marquise Williams (34-of-51, 443 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) has benefited thus far from the revival of UNC’s ground game, led by sophomore tailback Elijah Hood (29 carries, 194 yards, 2 TD).
The Tar Heels ranks fourth in the ACC in yards per play (6.69) despite not being able to play at their preferred tempo early in the season (135 plays, T-9th ACC).
"They just like to run a lot of plays," Cubit said. "They're not a big check-off system. They just play at a high tempo. We’ve got to keep our defensive linemen fresh."
Illinois is allowing 193.0 yards per game in 2015 after ranking 14th in the Big Ten a season ago by giving up 456.4 yards per game.
UNC is in the early stages of its own defensive revival under Gene Chizik’s direction. The Tar Heels have allowed 15.5 points and 333.5 yards per game in 2015.
“We’re a defense this year that’s not looking for shootouts,” junior cornerback Des Lawrence said. "We’re looking for shutouts."
The Illini will counter with junior quarterback Wes Lunt (44-of-65 passing, 478 yards, 5 TD, INT) and a balanced offensive attack. Cubit’s unit is averaging 48 points and 421 yards per game.
“Lunt is throwing the ball really well,” Fedora said. “He's got a great arm, a big kid that can throw it. He's very confident in what he's doing back there. He doesn't have happy feet. He's relaxed. He's doing a nice job.”
UNC’s defensive coaches have stressed the need to establish an effective pass rush to get Lunt out of his rhythm. The Tar Heels have just two sacks and nine quarterback hurries through two games.
UNC is looking to snap a three-game losing streak to Power 5 conference opponents and improve to 2-1 on the season.