Last year, these two teams squared off in Chapel Hill, a game in which UNC handedly won the contest 48-14. Carolina completely dominated, leading the whole game, and scoring 28 straight points at one point.
After starting the year 2-0, last year’s Illini team finished 5-7, ending their coach’s tenure with the team. This year, the Tar Heels will travel to Champaign to face a new-look Illini squad, led by first year head coach, Lovie Smith.
There isn’t a ton of information to go off of since Illinois has only played one game so far and it was against Murray State, an FCS opponent. The way Illinois looked and played against the Racers could easily be overblown and inflated.
Illinois looked great last year in their first two games against Kent State and Western Illinois, giving up three points total between both contests. However, they went on to win only three more games the rest of the year, against Middle Tennessee, Nebraska, and Purdue. All I am saying is it is hard to tell if any team is for real until they start to play better competition.
How many of you watched Illinois play Murray State? How many of you read about the game as well? I am going to guess that the Venn diagram of the people who did this research is pretty small. Well, I was able to muster up the energy and effort to do that this past weekend despite top 25 matchups playing out all weekend long. Without further ado let’s take a look at the limited material we have for Illinois during the 2016 season.
Last year’s Illinois team ranked 88th in total offense. This year’s team looks to be more improved and balanced at first glance. We have only seen Illinois in action in one game so far, but there are some key takeaways.
Illinois accumulated 515 total yards of offense against Murray State on Saturday. Quarterback Wes Lunt looked impressive spreading the ball to at least ten different wide receivers, on his way to completing 15/21 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Illinois ran a running back by committee approach against Murray State. Running back Kendrick Foster ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries Saturday. Reggie Corbin ran for an additional 71 yards and one score on seven carries. Illinois’ top returning rusher, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who ran for 723 yards in 2015, ran for 49 yards and a touchdown this past weekend.
Overall, Illinois ran a well-balanced offense, throwing for 228 yards and rushing for 287 more. However, it is difficult to measure how good Illinois’ offense is considering they have only played one game and it was against an inferior opponent.
Surprisingly, Illinois’ defense ranked 30th in total defense in 2015, and 15th in passing defense overall. However, this isn’t last year’s team. The 2016 Illini team features only one returning player in the secondary and one player in the back seven total.
What have we learned about Illinois’ defense from their first game matchup against Murray State? A lot, actually. Illinois held Murray State to 165 yards total, including -10 rushing yards on 26 carries. The Illini also forced six sacks and three turnovers.
The most impressive players for Illinois all played on the defensive side of the ball. The safeties each forced an interception for Illinois and helped hold Murray State to 163 yards passing.
The other three most impressive players were Dawuane Smoot, who caused a whole lot of havoc Saturday disrupting nearly every play, as well as Gimel President and Hardy Nickerson. President, a former Auburn defensive end, recorded two sacks Saturday. Nickerson, a linebacker, was all over the field, recording 11 tackles, one sack, and one tackle for loss.
Illinois’ defense is most certainly the cornerstone of their team. They really are trying to stress turnovers and they definitely have a vendetta against stopping the run.
After all of this being said, here is how I think things will shake out Saturday. Illinois is very very excited about their future under Lovie Smith. They are hyping up this UNC game and made sure it was played at night so that the crowd is extra rowdy and loud. On top of this, Illinois has not forgotten about what UNC did to them last year in Chapel Hill. This game will be used as a revenge game, and also as a measuring stick to see where Illinois football is at in the Lovie Smith era.
However, the advantage still goes to the Tar Heels. UNC is just too experienced and explosive on offense for Illinois to slow down. UNC just needs to be able to slow down Illinois’ run game and veteran quarterback, and they should take care of business in Champaign.
Final score- UNC 75, Illinois 70. Just kidding. UNC 38, Illinois 21.