The Fighting Illini come into Kenan Stadium at noon on Saturday for Carolina's third game of the season. This is weirdly a must win game for the Heels since a loss probably means that the Heels will finish the year with six or fewer wins. If the Heels only win six games then they are not initially bowl eligible since you can only count one win against an FCS team for your bowl eligibility. Additionally, if Carolina can't beat the Illini at home, then this team is bad and probably doesn't deserve a bowl in the first place (sorry everyone). The Illini have rolled through their early season schedule with two wins by a combined score of 96-3. But those wins were against Kent State and Western Illinois and at home so this will be the first meaningful game the Illini play this year.
Illinois is led by junior quarterback Wes Lunt. Lunt is an established starter and posted a solid stat line last year, completing 63.5% of his passes for 7.32 yards per attempt. Lunt also takes care of the football having thrown 14 TDs and only 3 INTs last year and 5 TDs to 1 INT this season. However, Lunt has not yet really shown development from last year in that his yards per attempt are basically the same 67.7% completion percentage compared to 63.5% last year and more importantly, 7.35 yards per attempt this year and only 7.32 yards last year. This shows that Lunt has not been able to throw the ball downfield against even weak opposition. Pressure hasn't been an issue since Lunt has yet to be sacked so far this season. Lunt simply has not taken shots downfield. His longest pass in two games is 34 yards and just four have been over 25 yards.
Lunt will be throwing the ball to Geronimo Allison and Marchie Murdock as his primary receivers. Allison, in particular has been the breakout receiver for the Illini so far with 181 yards receiving, more than 1/3 of Lunt's passing yards. Allison is a big target too, at 6'4", so the Heels may have trouble with him, especially since non-Des Lawrence corners struggled with a similar wideout last week in A&T's Denzel Keyes. If the Heels cover Allison then Murdock is Lunt's second option. An interesting thing to note is that Illinois does not get a lot out of its backs in the passing attack so Lunt will be looking at his receivers and this game should be a good challenge for the Carolina secondary.
Illinois has used two runners as their primary backs so far this season; Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Josh Ferguson. Ferguson is a fifth year senior who has been a key player for the Illini for the past two years. Ferguson is quite explosive as a runner, averaging at least five yards per carry in his two seasons as a starter. Ferguson can also function as a receiver, he catches about four passes per game but these are not for large gains, he averages about eight yards per catch. But because of his abilities as a receiver, he is going to be in the game on most plays. The other back, Vaughn, is a true freshman who was the #46 HB in the country last year. Vaughn was pretty lightly recruited but has gotten regular playing time in the first two games for the Illini. He figures to be more of the grinder for the Illini, he's averaging 3.7 yards per carry through the two games. Considering that relatively poor production against weak opposition, expect Ferguson to play more than Vaughn this game even though they have split time pretty evenly so far.
This is where it's really difficult to figure out this Illini team. There is no doubt that they have taken care of business so far this season but Kent State and Western Illinois are not exactly prolific. The Illini are 4th in the country right now in terms of yards per game allowed, keeping opponents to an average of 193 yards per contest. Last year the Illini were almost as bad as Carolina defensively. The Illini allowed an average of 464 yards per game last year, 115th in the country. The Heels were three spots lower at 118th and allowing 496 yards per game. Illinois also allowed 33.8 points per game last year and nearly 250 yards on the ground in each game. All Carolina fans know what that looks like (last year) and if the Illini have not improved on that performance, the Heels should impress on Saturday. One last thing to note is that Illinois corner Taylor Barton currently leads the Big Ten in interceptions with 3, so Marquise Williams should be careful when throwing at him.
The Weekly Assignments:
Take Command Early:
This is a theoretically easy home game for the Heels. They should aim to take an early lead and then grind the game out. The Heels have another easy game in week 4 before having to travel to Georgia Tech. This would be a good confidence building win to make sure that they head to Atlanta 3-1. Carolina should get out in front and then run the ball to end the game. This would also let the Heels see if Elijah Hood can produce another game like he did in Charlotte which could build more positive momentum as the Yellow Jackets loom.
Stop the Run:
This was the biggest issue for the Heels last year and has not really been fixed this year. The Heels gave up more than 5 yards per carry against South Carolina and 3.8 to A&T. That A&T number is a bit better than the defense actually performed since the Aggies' primary running back, Tarik Cohen had 4.6 yards per carry and Aggie QB Kwashaun Quick averaged 4.8 yards per carry. It was the Aggies' backups who struggled against the Heels but not their best players. Illinois is a step up from A&T and their best will be better. The Heels will not have to contend with a mobile quarterback for the first time all season and they should use that to really key in on the Illini running backs. If Carolina is to survive against the ACC then they will need to be able to bottle up teams like Illinois easily.
Shut Down Geronimo Allison:
Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart have been quietly excellent so far this season. A&T did not throw atLawrence and M.J. Stewart picked off a pass in that game. Lawrence held Pharoh Cooper to 45 yards on three catches in the opener. And the Heels held Keyes to 46 yards on three catches although those were mostly against backups. Carolina needs to continue this trend against #1 receivers in this game. That most likely means that Lawrence will get the call against Allison. If he definitively wins that match-up then Lunt will not have many other places to throw the football and Carolina should be in a great position to win the game.