Breaking it down: Illinois looking to pass first true test
Who: Illinois vs. North Carolina
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
Where: Kenan Stadium, UNC
Spread: UNC -10
Matchup to watch: Marquise Williams vs. Mason Monheim
Throw out the stats. Williams has not looked like the guy that set a school record in total yards last season. Make no mistake, Williams is one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the country. He’ll be miles ahead of either quarterback that the Illini have seen in its first two games. Illinois needs Monheim to play like the senior captain he is and be everywhere. Williams is not the world’s most efficient passer, and Monheim has been known to bait a quarterback into making an ill-advised throw. For a team looking to assert itself on the defensive end, Illinois needs its best player to shut down the Tarheels’ top offensive weapon.
Thing I’m excited for: Illini offense vs. real defense
With all due respect to Kent State and Western Illinois, Bill Cubit’s offense has not faced a real challenge yet. Finally, we’ll get to see what this group is capable of against a Big Ten-like foe. North Carolina has been solid defending the pass with only 129 yards allowed per contest, and unlike Illinois, the Tarheels have played a game against a quality opponent. Wes Lunt was not perfect last week. He easily could’ve thrown three picks against a subpar WIU secondary. Geronimo Allison is clearly Lunt’s go-to target, but this could be a game where the Illini try to spread the field and hit Josh Ferguson in space. It’ll be interesting to see if Illinois is able to get looks downfield or is Bill Cubit is content to dink and dunk to move the chains.
Number to remember: 1.5
That’s how many points per game Illinois has allowed in the first two weeks. While Northwestern’s defense has been stealing all the headlines, it’s actually Illinois that has been the most efficient unit so far. Now, as I’ve said a million times, that’s against lesser competition. Still, you can’t dismiss the playmaking emergence of Taylor Barton or All-Name Team captain Chunky Clements. Keep in mind that this is a group that struggled mightily in non-conference play last year, allowing 32.5 points per game. A stout defensive performance on the road against an ACC school would show the strides Illinois has made.
Prediction: UNC 31, Illinois 24
Having said all of that, I don’t think Illinois has the speed on defense to contain all of UNC’s weapons. The Tarheels will rely plenty on tailback Elijah Hood to keep the offense rolling and Williams will look more like his 2014 self. Both defenses will make more plays than the oddsmakers say, but ultimately, UNC takes care of business at home.