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Illinois vs. North Carolina 2015: Game Preview

The Fighting Illini are in Chapel Hill for their first test of the season.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports


Game: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. North Carolina Tar Heels

Time: 11:00 AM Central Time - Saturday, September 19th

Place: Kenan Memorial Stadium - Chapel Hill, North Carolina

TV: ESPN2 - Beth Mowins


UNC has the classic blue and white thing on lock, so I'm happy to see a hefty dose of orange in this week's uniforms. Have to rep the University's trademark colors when you're in a foreign land.


No surprises here. I've written at length about the importance of Tim Clary to this team, and it just sucks that he's out for a while. Zach Heath was also the man I'd pinned to start the end of the season at LG, and now he's out too with what looked like a pretty serious injury on the field last week.

Only other note is that Justin Hardee was expected to be back around this time, but it looks like he'll remain out for at least UNC.



Larry Fedora's prolific North Carolina offense runs primarily on the back of dual threat quarterback Marquise Williams. Williams is experienced and dangerous, with the ability to break big plays in both the running and passing game.

Much has been made of Williams' performance in the red zone against South Carolina. I get it-- it's a highly visible game (the first of the year!) and he had three interceptions at key points of the game. There just isn't much evidence to suggest that Williams is a very turnover prone quarterback.

Williams' career touchdown to interception ratio is 40 TDs to 18 INTs. That's perfectly fine and not indicative of any significant issue. He also led UNC in rushing attempts and yardage last season. This is a talented, veteran quarterback whose reputation has been overly damaged by a high profile game. That doesn't mean he doesn't make bad decisions, or that he won't throw a pick on Saturday. It just means that history tells a different story than the narrative that emerged from UNC's opener.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Marquise &lt; opp 25-yd line… &#10;2014 (13 G): 23 TDs, 3 TOs, 5 sacks, 64% completions&#10;2015 (1 G): 1 TD, 3 TOs, 2 sacks, 33% completions.&#10;<a href="">#UNC</a></p>&mdash; David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) <a href="">September 4, 2015</a></blockquote>

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The running back in this spread attack is Elijah Hood. Frankly, he's awesome. Hood has nearly 200 rushing yards on 29 carries through the first two games of the season-- against South Carolina he averaged over ten yards a carry. Is that good? That is good. Hood is fast enough to get to the edge and big enough to handle between-the-tackles running.

The question for the UNC running game is whether the offensive line can provide help this season. In 2014, the line struggled and didn't do much to aid North Carolina's talented backfield. They return the majority of the line for 2015, but... and bear with me as I say this... it seems Illinois has the best defensive line that the Tar Heels have faced thus far. Jihad Ward and Rob Bain will provide a challenge, and we saw in the Kent State game that experience doesn't always equal improvement.

UNC's receiving corps is excellent. You may remember Ryan Switzer from like, all of the long punt and kick returns on Sportscenter over the last couple years. Expect him to move all around the line of scrimmage and try to cause mismatch issues with the relatively un-speedy Illini linebackers.

Switzer is probably still the best receiver on the team, but he's being challenged hard by large man Bug Howard. Howard is a six-foot-five receiver from Georgia, and uses his size well in racking up big pass plays. He was relatively quiet last week against North Carolina A&T, but racked up over 100 yards receiving against South Carolina and proved how difficult he is to bring down. Lastly, there's senior WR Quinshad Davis, who's no easy cover himself.

This is an offense with a lot of talented weapons. If Illinois can bottle this one up, there are few offenses on the schedule that will be harder to slow down.


The North Carolina defense is a big of an enigma. Last year, it struggled to stop anything and everything. The Tar Heels were 108th in opponent yards per carry in 2014, and 121st in yards per attempt allowed. THEY WERE WORSE THAN THE ILLINOIS DEFENSE. IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!

After Vic Koenning's firing in the offseason, Fedora hired Gene Chizik (a huge get) to help rebuild a defense that simply has to match the productivity of its offensive counterpart for Fedora to keep his job. Chizik has installed a pretty standard 4-3 defense and the team actually has some pretty nice athletes on that side of the ball.

The position on the defense which stuck out the most to me in watching UNC's first two games was defensive tackle. The primary rotation players, senior Justin Thomason, redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke, and sophomore Nazair Jones. All of these guys weigh in at or above 300 pounds and all of them stand over six-foot-four.

They are huge and disruptive. Illinois is looking at another game in which they will not be able to run the ball up the middle. Cubit will have to get creative. Expect to see a plethora of outside runs and an emphasis on Josh Ferguson's game-breaking speed.

The play of Craig Boles could be a huge issue in this game, as I'm sure Chizik will be repeatedly dialing up line twists in his direction, attempting to confuse Boles and then hit him with some very, very large dudes.

Star senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer heads an experienced linebacking corps, capable of completing all the tasks necessary to support the large men ahead of them. Where the UNC defense still has questions is in the secondary.

Chizik has sung the praises of sophomore cornerback M.J. Stewart this season, so it can be assumed that he's pretty good, but the rest of the secondary leaves a bit to be desired. Neither South Carolina nor NC A&T had nearly the weapons Illinois does in the passing game to take advantage of weaknesses in the secondary.

Geronimo Allison is several inches taller than everybody in the secondary. Expect to see some back shoulder fades. Desmond Cain and DJ Taylor are fast enough to compete with some talented, though perhaps mentally unprepared, UNC defensive backs. Expect to see some of those same bubble screens that appeared in the last game.

Illinois should have a prolific passing attack this season. To have success in this game, the pass blocking is going to have to hold up against the UNC defensive line. Chizik has rarely blitzed this season and won't until the Illini OL proves it can't keep Lunt healthy in pass protection against four rushers. If Illinois can string together some intermediate passes and force Chizik to bring some pressure, then it's going to be a good day for the orange and blue.


North Carolina 31, Illinois 24

This game should boil down to the Illini defense's ability to force turnovers and prevent big plays. North Carolina has explosive weapons but can struggle if forced into longer, sustained drives. Their defense is good enough at preventing short plays, particularly against the run, but could be extremely susceptible to a strong passing game.

There are a lot of unknowns with both of these teams, but North Carolina has enough knowns to make it my predicted victor. They are favored by nearly ten points, after all. Keep in mind: Illinois losing this game does not mean the team has not made progress. UNC has a chance to be really good this year if their defense is for real. If Illinois plays a close game, I think fans should be happy with whatever the final result may be. It certainly can't be worse than the road game against Washington last season.

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What's your prediction for the game? Use the above widget to submit your winner and final score (S/O to The Crowd's Line for providing us with this #technology).