North Carolina vs Illinois, Noon, ESPN2
Must win game in September?
It sure feels that way and not just for this season but possible for the program at large. Consider the following stat. UNC has zero wins in four tries against Power 5 non-conference teams during the Larry Fedora era. Those four losses were to South Carolina(2013 & 2015), Notre Dame and Rutgers last year. The Tar Heels did beat Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in 2013 but the Bearcats are in the AAC and not Power 5. This stat, possibly more than any other, defines where the program is at. It also illustrates why this game can, at the very least, be a signal of some progress in the program
Put simply, if UNC can't get a win at home against a middle-of-the-road B1G team when it has an experienced offensive unit and a improving defense in the fourth year of the Fedora tenure, the confidence level in this program is going to drop in a hurry. Also, if UNC can't win this game then the odds of winning against teams in the ACC also get much longer as does becoming bowl eligible.
This will serve as a great test for both teams. For UNC the defense will go against an experienced quarterback who will have the capability to make the secondary pay for mistakes, especially if UNC doesn't exert pressure in the pocket. Through two games UNC has just two sacks and nine QB hurries and that included one game against an FCS offensive line. The Tar Heels' sacks total is tied for 13th in the ACC with Wake Forest and the nine tackles for a loss are 14th in the ACC.
UNC's lack of pressure on the opposing backfield has not been a huge issue so far. Against South Carolina UNC had a series of downs where the defense adequately ratcheted up the pressure on the quarterback to get a key stop. Outside of that there hasn't been much and even the lack of pressure hasn't resulted in containment of direct snap runs, something that has hurt the Tar Heels so far.
The running game has also been an issue for UNC with UNC 98th nationally in yards per carry allowed. Illinois hasn't necessarily been gashing teams on the ground at 3.7 yards per rush allowed. The question is whether UNC can sell out more to stop Illinois' passing game while not permitting the running game to get on track? The defense of last season had a penchant for making even the weaker aspects of an opponent's offense look great. Illinois running the football with any effectiveness would certainly make stopping the better passing game more difficult.
On the offensive side, UNC will face what has been a very stingy defense statistically speaking. Whether Illinois' defensive prowess is a result of a weak schedule or grounded in reality will be laid bare on Saturday. As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The level of competition certainly matters here but it also stands to reason Illinois has enjoyed some degree of improvement. UNC's offense was much better last week though against an FCS opponent. UNC living up to the offensive hype in this game should be enough to get UNC a critical win.
UNC 35 Illinois 24