Outside of the typical ACC schedule and one SEC team, there has been one other constant in the past two years for UNC football: average Big 10 squad Illinois. The two schools just finished a home-and-home series this past Saturday with the Heels winning both matchups in convincing fashion. It’s been a lopsided affair, as UNC has outscored the Illini 96-37 over eight quarters.
North Carolina is set to begin ACC play in the next few weeks. Looking at both Illinois games from the past two seasons can be a good way to locate the differences in these two UNC squads and what that might ultimately mean for Carolina the rest of the way. Last season, the Heels crushed Illinois in Chapel Hill for their second win and would go on to an 11-game winning streak. Can something similar be expected after Saturday night in Champaign?
Obviously, the main difference between the two Illinois victories and even both seasons is the change in quarterback. Marquise Williams is gone, and Mitch Trubisky has stepped in to lead Larry Fedora’s dynamic offense. Strangely, despite their different skill sets, both Williams and Trubisky had successful, efficient games against Illinois. A year ago, Williams went 17-for-24 for 203 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception—add nine rushes for 105 yards, too. Trubisky went 19-for-24 for 265 yards and two touchdowns, as well as a stunning 42 rushing yards and two rushing scores.
So, what does this say about the Heels’ new quarterback? Well, oddly enough, Trubisky might be more versatile than many previously thought. He looked confident when called upon to run the ball. He’s never going to make some of the athletic plays like Williams did, but it appears Trubisky might have the perfect amount of mobility that UNC needs.
Trubisky still hasn’t found a great connection with his receivers yet. Williams spread the ball around a lot against Illinois last year, and the trio of Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard didn’t have a major impact. Trubisky similarly spread the ball around to those three, and their relationship appears to be growing each week. Still, this game says more about Trubisky’s accuracy and steady performance than the receivers stepping up.
On the defensive side of things, it was similar yet again. The much-maligned rushing defense of last year has not improved. UNC allowed over 100 yards to Josh Ferguson last year and Ke’Shawn Vaughn this year. It should be noted that both of those yardage totals came off of massive runs. Otherwise, the UNC defense looked rather stout against the Illini—quarterback Wes Lunt never got comfortable in either game—but giving up those long plays is still a concern a year later.
With all that said, it seems as though the Tar Heels are set for another impressive season following a disappointing opener. Moreover, it was inspiring to see UNC bounce back after the brutal Georgia loss. Illinois kept it close at times, but Carolina remained strong and eventually pushed the game out of reach. It was also a big road win for the Tar Heels and, while Illinois isn’t exactly a terror dome, it’s a solid away win.
Unfortunately, the road North Carolina had following Illinois last year was much easier than this upcoming season. Road games at FSU and Miami are both tougher than any ACC game the Heels had last year. Throw in a tough Pitt matchup and a few rivalry games, and this conference slate is certainly more difficult.
The Heels quieted a lot of anxiety this past weekend, and the team looks comparably as good as last year’s. Still, an 11-game winning streak is most likely not in the cards, in part due to the tougher schedule. If we can take anything from a second Illinois win, other than sighs of relief and elation, it’s that UNC is still just as formidable.