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Illinois vs. North Carolina 2016: Lovie Smith’s first test under the lights

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A primetime matchup with the Tar Heels will give us a barometer for how good this Illinois team is

It’s not hyperbole to say that Saturday’s matchup with North Carolina is the biggest game for the Illinois football program since at least 2011. Put on a good showing (heck, even win) and the Lovie momentum will reach fever pitch and accelerate the rebuilding effort in recruiting. Get blown out, like the 48-14 drubbing in Chapel Hill last season, and some of the infectious optimism around the program will dissipate. In the first night game since 2013, Memorial Stadium will be packed with an Orange Out, and with the possibility of a sellout.

Game Day Information

Fighting Illini Uniforms

After wearing the classic blue uniforms with orange pants and an orange helmet in the season opener against Murray State, the Illini will go all-orange against the Tar Heels

North Carolina Scouting Report

The Tar Heels are coming off a 33-24 loss to No. 9 Georgia, a game in which they led heading into the fourth quarter. North Carolina was No. 22 in the preseason poll, however, they dropped out of the rankings following their loss in Week One.

Offense

One of North Carolina’s most pressing questions in the offseason was how were they going to replace starting quarterback Marquise Williams. Those concerns were not alleviated in the season opener, as junior Mitch Trubisky was shaky at best against the Bulldogs. He finished 24-of-40 for just 156 yards and no touchdowns, including a mental mistake where he threw a screen pass in his own endzone for a safety. Look for more touches for talented running back Elijah Hood. He’s coming off a season where he accumulated nearly 1,500 yards on the ground, but was given just 10 carries to start 2016. The key for Illinois will be to get North Carolina behind the sticks and force Trubisky to beat them through the air.

Defense

It was clear that Illinois wanted to establish the running game against Murray State, and the game plan will be similar against this North Carolina defense. The Tar Heels were gashed for 289 yards on the ground, 222 alone coming from Georgia’s star running back Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs pounded the ball on the ground 52 times, so expect a heavy dose of Ke’Shawn Vaughn on Saturday night. UNC’s defense was able to record four sacks against Georgia, and their sack rate is fifth-highest in the nation after the first week. Look for the Tar Heels to try to turn up the heat on Wes Lunt when he drops back to pass.

TCR Prediction

This is a tough one to call. My heart tells me that the Illini rise to the occasion and take an early lead, and the defense is able to make life miserable for Trubisky and Co. My head says that UNC is an extremely talented team that has been chewed out all week by their coaches after a sloppy performance to start the season. I think it will be a great atmosphere, a great game, but the Illini fall just short.

North Carolina 28, Illinois 24

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below with your predictions for the game!