Lovie Smith: Illini's game with North Carolina a ‘true measuring stick'


We've seen Lovie Smith's Illini win a game. But we've yet to see what they're made of.

Fortunately we won't have to wait long to learn that, either.

Illinois' 52-3 throttling of Murray State was surely reason for celebration in Champaign, with Smith getting his first win as the Illini head coach, but it didn't tell us much other than that a Big Ten team can expectedly run rings around an FCS opponent.

The offense put up some impressive numbers, with Wes Lunt throwing for 226 yards and three touchdowns and running back Kendrick Foster rushing for a pair of 56-yard touchdown scampers, one of three Illini ball-carriers to hit the end zone. Meanwhile, the defense forced three turnovers, including interceptions on Murray State's first two drives.

It was without a doubt a mighty positive start for a team that hasn't had much to cheer about in recent seasons. But like has happened in recent seasons, beating up on lesser competition is hardly a sign of things to come.

Illinois won last season's opener by an identical 52-3 score over Kent State and pounded Western Illinois to the tune of 44-0, giving Bill Cubit a 96-3 scoring edge in his first two games as interim head coach before the Illini were trounced at North Carolina and ended up with a 5-7 record. The season prior, with Tim Beckman still at the helm, Illinois bested Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State in the non-conference portion of the schedule — with Lunt putting up gigantic numbers in all of those games — but also got pasted, 44-19 at Washington and posted a 3-5 record in conference play.

That's not to say this season will follow that pattern. It's a different group with a different coaching staff with a different venue. The Illini's last four non-conference regular-season games against Power Five teams have been played away from Champaign and have all been losses. But certainly we'll know much more about the Illini after seeing them play another Power Five team as opposed to an FCS cupcake.

"It's early in the year, but for us this is a big game," Smith said during his weekly press conference Monday. "I don't know how North Carolina's looking at the game, the way they beat us up last year. But for us it's a big game and a true measuring stick to see where we are.

"There's no preseason games, so it's about the first game you play each year. That's why I make the statement that the most improvement you should see is from Game 1 to Game 2. We do know now, we've had a chance to finish plays, see guys in the game environment and everything that goes along with that. We went through our game-week routine all the way up until the game. So a lot of things we need to do, we went through this past week, and that should make us better this week."

It's not like North Carolina is any old squad. The Tar Heels played in last season's ACC title game, falling to Clemson by just eight points. In fact, North Carolina's win over Illinois last season was one of a stretch of 11 straight victories after dropping the season-opener to South Carolina.

This, of course, is a different team — one that might lose its preseason AP ranking after losing this year's season-opener against an also-ranked Georgia team — but it's still a good one and one of the highest-profile non-conference teams to visit Champaign in a long time.

What does Illinois have going for it in this one? An early glance indicates the Illini could have some rushing success. The Heels had one of the worst rushing defenses in the nation last season, ranking 121st out of 127 teams with an average of 247.4 rushing yards allowed per game. Only two Power Five conference teams, Kansas and Texas Tech, were worse at stopping the run. And this past Saturday, North Carolina allowed Georgia running back Nick Chubb — one of the best in the country at his position — to run wild for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

That should be music to the Illini's ears after their rushing attack had a big day against Murray State. Kendrick Foster rattled off 118 yards on just four carries thanks to a pair of 56-yard touchdown runs, with the whole team finishing with 287 yards on the ground.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn still got the majority of the carries vs. Murray State and no one should expect that to change for the North Carolina game, but the more weapons the Illini have on offense, the better.

"Running backs want to get in the end zone. All running backs dream of scoring, longer runs, breaking it, not getting caught from behind," Smith said Monday. "Your backup running back, at that. You're going to have limited reps, and you need to make the most of them.

"I think Kendrick took full advantage of the opportunity that he got."

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