CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Once again North Carolina is tasked with overcoming a season-opening loss in a primetime setting and not allowing that defeat to morph into two notches in the loss column. Illinois served as the Tar Heels’ FBS bounce-back game a season ago, although under new head coach Lovie Smith’s direction this year's Illini are looking for their own program-defining win on Saturday night.
At the Power 5 conference level, there is no such thing as a moral victory. A loss is a loss. What a team does with a loss, however, is a different story, one that separates the contenders from the teams that rode nothing more than preseason hype into their season opener.
Last season, the season-opening loss to South Carolina had a strange effect on the Tar Heels, refocusing them, tightening the locker room bonds and their determination to avoid yet another mediocre season. UNC reeled off 11 straight wins and the rest is clearly plastered on Kenan Football Center walls and in media guides and weekly releases.
The 2015 season always seemed to be building to this fall, a year in which the Tar Heels had finally grown up and the vast experience and talent could overcome the losses of standouts such as Marquise Williams, Landon Turner and Jeff Schoettmer. The carryover wasn’t immediate, however. UNC didn’t play like an experienced team in its season-opening 33-24 loss to Georgia last weekend.
“Our guys have seen it before,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said this week. “They know what it takes. They know, for us, it's focusing inward. It's making sure that we are right, making sure we get corrected, making sure it's not so much about the opponent that we play but making sure we get the things cleaned up that we need to take care of as a team.”
Illinois offers a reprieve of sorts. The Illini went 5-7 last year under interim head coach Bill Cubit, who was fired in March. Enter Smith, the former Chicago Bears head coach returning to the college ranks for the first time since serving as Ohio State’s defensive backs coach in 1995.
Smith, whose six-year, $21-million contract was approved this week, has brought a business-like approach and stability to a program not far removed from Tim Beckman’s firing following reports of player mistreatment. Following a 52-3 dismantling of FCS opponent Murray State last week, the Illini have highlighted Saturday night’s game as the start of the program’s resurgence, complete with skydivers, a pregame concert and an “orange out” theme that includes free shirts for 10,000 fans.
"It's early in the year, but for us this is a big game," Smith said. "I don't know how North Carolina's looking at the game, the way they beat us up last year. But for us it's a big game and a true measuring stick to see where we are.”
While UNC’s run defense drew plenty of headlines after Georgia’s Nick Chubb ran for 222 yards and two touchdowns at a 6.9-yards-per-carry clip in Atlanta, it was a lack of production from an offense expected to be one of the top in the country that was most glaring. Not only were running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan limited to 16 combined carries despite averaging 9.5 yards per carry, but junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky struggled in his first career start, completing 24-of-40 passes for 156 yards.
“I think he was really, really concerned with taking care of the football,” Fedora said. “That was probably the first thing through his mind, and it ought to be, but you’ve still got to play. You can’t be afraid to play.”
UNC’s passing game is designed around the concept of short passes for big gains, although a 3.9 yards-per-attempt average and an 0-for-7 mark on passes of 20 or more yards hampered the offense into scoring just 17 points.
“We didn’t execute when we had the opportunities for those big plays,” offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic said. “And that’s what we have to make happen. That’s the way this offense is built: when they give you a play, you’ve got to take it, and that’s the thing we’ve really got to work on.”
The challenge for the Tar Heels, for the second week in a row, is the lack of knowledge as it relates to the schemes that Illinois will employ. Smith was intentionally vanilla in his opener, thereby creating a guessing game for the UNC coaching staff a week after preparing for Kirby Smart’s first game as Georgia’s head coach.
“There's just so much unknown,” Fedora said. “We're going to have to go into the game and make good adjustments.”
Those adjustments will extend beyond basic schematics. The Tar Heels’ mindset will have to adjust as well to shake off their first loss of the season and start yet another winning streak.