Series Record: UNC leads, 3-0
Getting To Know The Illini
After several tumultuous years full of coaching changes and controversy, Illinois finally seems to be set on a steady course. With the firing of coach Tim Beckman one week before the Illini’s season opener in 2015, interim head coach Bill Cubit took the reins and led Illinois to a 5-6 record. Cubit was expected to become the full time head coach going into the 2016 season, but was fired in March on athletic director Josh Whitman’s first day on the job. The firing of Cubit drew initial criticism until Whitman announced the hiring of former NFL coach Lovie Smith, who coached in the NFL for 19 years and led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. In Smith’s first game at Illinois, his squad handled FCS opponent Murray State, 52-3.
Illinois welcomes UNC to Champaign this weekend after the Tar Heels won the matchup, 48-14, in Chapel Hill last year.
Smith’s NFL ties include a pro-style approach, which he has implemented at Illinois. UNC coach Larry Fedora described Smith’s offensive style as “not exotic,” highlighting the traditional schematics. That starts with Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, who completed 56.1 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2015. Lunt started his senior season by completing 15-of-21 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns against Murray State. The highlight of his day was a 68-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Malik Turner down the left sideline.
After a pass-happy offense under Cubit, Illinois showcased a balanced approach in Smith’s first game. Junior running back Kendrick Foster looked like a new man against the Racers, scoring a pair of 56-yard touchdown runs. He finished with 118 rushing yards on just four attempts. Ke’Shawn Vaughn (49 yards, TD) is the top returning rusher after churning out 723 yards and six touchdowns on 157 carries. Reggie Corbin also got in on the action, rushing for 71 yards and a touchdown. The most notable difference in the Illini backfield was a preference of speed over power in the run game. Smith believes with his core group of halfbacks, that speed will be what finds them the most success.
When it comes to the Illini receivers, Lunt distributed the ball equally on Saturday. Ten different receivers caught at least one pass against Murray State. Desmond Cain is the Illini’s top returning wide receiver, catching 53 balls for 492 yards and a touchdown in 2015. Malik Turner caught 39 balls for 510 yards and three scores. At 6-foot-3, Turner is taller than most defensive backs and contains an impressive speed which allows him to get behind his defender. Cain is a bit shorter at 5-foot-11, providing a quality inside-outside duo for Lunt.
There is nothing more important to Smith on the defensive side of the ball than turnovers. He is known for constantly preaching that teams that win the turnover battle typically come out the victors. The early returns were positive on Saturday, as the Illini were able to force three turnovers against Murray State. The turnovers started early with an interception by safety Julian Hylton less than a minute into the game.
The Illini’s strength defensively is their front seven. Fedora praised the defensive front after last season’s meeting and expects the group to be just as imposing, if not more, than they were last September. The group dominated the Murray State run game, holding the Racers to minus-10 rushing yards. The group is highlighted by linebacker James Crawford (7 tackles) and defensive lineman Carroll Phillips (3 TFL), both of whom had several big plays in Week 1.
The biggest addition to Smith’s defense is senior linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr., who transferred to Illinois from California after his father, Hardy Nickerson, Sr., was named defensive coordinator. In his first game at his new school, Nickerson recorded 11 tackles, eight of them solo tackles, along with a sack. His addition is critical given that Illinois returned just four starters on defense.
Smith is known for his Cover-2 defense, which will be put to the test against UNC’s HUNH spread offense. The Illini got a small sample size of the spread offense against Murray State, and Smith’s secondary passed the warmup with flying colors. The Illini intercepted two passes and limited their opponent to 5.0 yards per passing attempt (175 yards on 35 attempts).
"It's good to be 1-0, but besides that, the last game felt like training camp, something that's in our past that will hopefully make us better going forward. We're really excited about playing North Carolina this week, they're a storied program. There's a type of football that you expect from them, a lot of good athletes, well coached. Everything that you look for in having a successful program, is what we see in [UNC]. They played a good game this past week and had a good Georgia team down 10 points in the third quarter, so we know who we're seeing this weekend. Coach Fedora is a good football coach and has been that way for a long time." - Smith
"We're going to play our defense, but both are a little bit different. Both can really go the distance right away. It doesn't really matter which one is out there, both are great players and can change the outcome of the game. Both had a big impact throughout the [Georgia] game. We just need to know that whoever is back there can break a game open in a second. Four of their five offensive linemen also return from last year, so that also has an impact on how productive they were this past week." - Smith on defending UNC running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan
Matchup to Watch
UNC Run Defense vs Illinois Rushing Attack
It’s hard to compare the first week performances of both of these position groups. On one hand, UNC’s run defense gave up 289 rushing yards to an SEC opponent in Georgia, with All-America candidate Nick Chubb. On the other, the Illini rushed for 287 yards in Week 1, but it was against an FCS opponent. Regardless, UNC’s defense can’t allow Foster, Vaughn, and Corbin to establish a rhythm like Chubb and company did last week. The Tar Heels’ biggest problem against Georgia was missed or broken tackles, a problem that may be lessened in this matchup. The Illini running backs depend more on speed, and aren’t as physical as the Bulldogs’ runners. Foster has breakaway speed, but isn’t necessarily known for gaining yards after contact. If UNC’s front seven can contain the Illini rushers, it may be their physicality that wins this battle.