The Lovie Smith era kicked off with a runaway victory over Murray State this past Saturday in front of 48,000 at Memorial Stadium. While the game seemed to be in hand from the opening minutes (literally), there were still several Illini who had huge performances that contributed the win. Below we break down and rank the best ones hockey style.
Third Star: Illinois Secondary
This one goes out to Julian Hylton and Taylor Barton. Each managed to haul in an interception within the first seven minutes of the game. Hylton, who is a redshirt sophomore, was a surprise starter when the depth chart was released earlier this week, but it seems Lovie Smith knows exactly what he's doing. Hylton cemented his spot at strong safety with an exceptional performance against Murray State.
Julian Hylton Interception pic.twitter.com/2YBbmo5sSJ— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 3, 2016
Taylor Barton Interception pic.twitter.com/yNp9Xpznvn— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 3, 2016
Both INT's helped set the tone for an Illini defense that was stout from the opening snap to the final play. Also noteworthy was that the Racers finished with negative rushing yards, certainly a testament to the Illini secondary's ability to plug the holes and stop the run game before it even had a chance to start. If this type of production can continue, Illinois will easily surpass last year's turnover total. It's clear that the #LovieSmithEffect is already being felt.
Second Star: Wes Lunt
Lunt did exactly what a senior quarterback and captain of the team should do against an FCS opponent. He dominated, throwing for 226 yards and completing 15 out of 21 to seven different receivers. He hurled three touchdowns and didn't throw an interception, finishing the day with a total QBR of 99.2. In fact, at one point his rating was as high as 454, which probably leads the nation.
Wes Lunt has a QB rating of 454.0 right now. #Illini— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) September 3, 2016
His second TD pass of the game was a 68-yard bomb to Malik Turner, the longest pass of Lunt's career.
Wes Lunt toMalik Turner Touchdown pic.twitter.com/C6iPRFRrIa— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 3, 2016
Murray State will be the easiest defense Lunt faces this season, but it was still very encouraging to see the senior QB get off to such a strong start in 2016.
First Star: Kendrick Foster
Yes, that's right. Kendrick Foster. The running back who announced he was going to transfer eight months ago because he wanted more opportunities. He finished the day with four carries for 118 yards (!!) and two 56-yard touchdown runs (!!) for an average of 29.5 yards per rush (!!), a new Illinois record.
Foster will mainly work as Ke'Shawn Vaughn's backup, but with performances like the one he put up against Murray State it will be hard to keep him on the sideline.
And oh yeah, he was also on the kick return team. Foster is a versatile back who may play a much bigger role than some anticipated this season. For a guy who almost called it a career at Illinois, it was impressive to watch him have a career day.
On to North Carolina, which will be a huge test this Saturday night for the Illini. But I think Lovie Smith is ready.