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North Carolina Tarheels at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

When: Sat. Sept. 10, 2016; 7:30 pm ET
Where: Champaign, IL; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: North Carolina leads 3-0
Last Meeting: North Carolina won 48-14 (last year)
Line: North Carolina -9.5

Sadly, this was set to be a bigger matchup of Big Ten teams coming into week two, but North Carolina bullocks it all up by losing to Georgia last weekend. As it stands, it’s still an intriguing contest in a rather unassuming week 2 slate of games.

Lovie Smith’s team looked fantastic against an overmatched Murray State, but the ‘Heels have far more talent and ability than what the Racers could roll out onto the field. It was similar last year when the Illini looked like a top 25 team against Kent State and Western Illinois before getting absolutely railroaded by UNC 48-14 to reset expectations. Will it be the same this year, or will Lovie Smith plant a flat in the ground that he’s intent on building something in Champaign ahead of schedule?

 

1 Burning Question: Just how good is this Illinois team?

Yep. This is a great litmus test to see where this squad really is. The game was never in doubt against Murray State, and almost every phase of the game looked polished and ready for the big time, but that doesn’t mean squat when you haven’t played the big time.

Truthfully, we still don’t know exactly who this baby blue outfit is either, but the chasm between the two programs was evident last year in Chapel Hill, and If Lovie Smith wants to inject some confidence into this program, these are the types of games to do it. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has started to turn the corner with the Tar Heel program, and Smith would like to do the same. What better way to start that process than by getting a win Saturday.

2 Key Stats:

— 48. That’s the amount of points Illinois gave up to North Carolina last year. The offense was more than capable of scoring points last year, but couldn’t finish things off. Meanwhile, the defense let it down far too often in Chapel hill, allowing the game to get out of reach, and forcing the Illini to break from its game plan. The result was a shock to the confidence of a team that lingered the remainder of the season.

— 289. That’s the amount of yards the Tar Heels gave up on the ground to Georgia last week. According to head coach Larry Fedora, a lot of that had to do with 17 missed tackles by his defense on Saturday and a lot of yards after contact. The Illini totaled 287 yards amongst multiple backs last week, and you know Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kendrick Foster are hoping they can have the similar success against a defense that’s licking its wounds from being bruised and battered by Georgia running back Nick Chubb.

3 Key Players:

Kendrick Foster, Illinois RB: On that note, Foster must have a big day for the Illini to pull off the upset. North Carolina would love nothing more than to spend boatloads of time on offense going up and down the field giving the scoreboard operator nary a bathroom break. To counter that, Illinois has to find a way to move the chains and control the clock on the ground.

Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina QB: This is Trubisky’s team with the graduation of Marquise Williams from last year, and there is a lot of pressure riding on the 6-3, 220 lb. junior from Mentor, Ohio. Unfortunately, he struggled to make a splash against a veteran Georgia secondary last week, and didn’t provide enough plays in the passing game to give Carolina a chance. Elijah Hood is a talented running back, but he can’t do it all, and needs a real threat in the passing game to keep opposing defenses honest.

Dawuane Smoot, Illinois DE: The Illini will look to do what the Georgia Bulldogs were able to accomplish against the Tar Heels last week — make life difficult in the passing game. The Illini’s secondary isn’t as talented or experienced as what Georgia’s is, but they have the enforcer at defensive end that can bring the heat and make Trubisky tentative in the pocket. He’s still finding his footing in 2016, and if Smoot and his fellow line-mates can get in his face early and often, it’ll set the tone for the game.

4 Bold Prognostications:

— Elijah Hood will have over 50 yards receiving. Yeah, I know No. 34 is a talented running back for North Carolina and not a split end, but look for Larry Fedora to get his new QB some confidence by dialing up quicker and shorter pass routes. A handful of those would surely be to the halfback on screen passes for higher percentage plays, and you have to like his chances of breaking one or two for some decent yardage.

— The Illini tight ends will catch two TD passes. North Carolina has the pieces back from a secondary that finished 12th in the country in pass efficiency defense last year. Couple that with an unproven linebacking unit and the middle of the field is going to be open. Look for Lovie Smith to exploit this weakness in the red zone and go with the matchup of Tyler White or Caleb Reams against a ‘Heels linebacker through the air.

— North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky will throw for over 300 yards. He’s due. The matchup against Georgia was a nightmare with all of their skill and experience in shutting down opposing passing games, but the Illini are a far cry from that. They come into the season having to replace three experienced starters all while learning the new Tampa 2 scheme. It’s going to take some time to iron out all the kinks, and Carolina has an abundance of playmakers on the outside to torch the Illini secondary. Trubisky will be the benefactor.

— Carolina will win more handily than you think. Yeah, Lovie Smith is now wearing the headset, but this thing isn’t going to turn overnight. Throw away the Murray State game because, well, it’s Murray State. North Carolina had a bad matchup against Georgia, but this team is still loaded with talent at the skill positions and on defense. Mitch Trubisky will figure things out against a defense still trying to adapt to a new scheme, and somewhere Michael Jordan will be smiling when his Tar Heels win big.

5 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Illinois 34-24
Dave: North Carolina 34-20
Phil: North Carolina 37-21
Philip: North Carolina 31-21
Zach: North Carolina 34-30

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