CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — A year ago, a 48-14 win over Illinois got North Carolina going and propelled the Tar Heels on a run to the ACC championship game and a bowl.
Coming off a 33-24 season-opening loss to Georgia that knocked them out of the Top 25, the Tar Heels could use a repeat performance Saturday when they travel to Illinois.
“It would be a confidence booster,” receiver Ryan Switzer said. “The 2016 team hasn’t won a game yet. We’re going into a Power Five team who had a good showing in week one, who’s got new energy and a new staff, and a night game at their own place.”
The Illini are one big win into the tenure of new coach Lovie Smith. That 52-3 victory over Football Championship Subdivision school Murray State was nice, Smith said, but Saturday’s game is a bigger deal.
“I don’t know how North Carolina’s looking at the game — the way the beat us up last year, you know,” he said. “But for us, it’s a big game, and a true measuring stick to see where we are.”
Things to watch for Saturday when North Carolina visits the Illini:
North Carolina gashed the Illini for 254 yards last year, 130 of them by then-sophomore tailback Elijah Hood. But the Illinois defensive line lived up to its billing in this season’s opener as the strength of the team, holding Murray State to minus-10 yards rushing and sacking Racers quarterbacks six times. Holding Hood in check might mean the Illini will see more of quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who produced just 156 yards on 24-of-40 passing against Georgia and threw more than Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora intended.
“When you start to get behind the chains the whole time, and you’re in long yardage situations, it’s tough to sit in there and say we’re going to run the football. I’ve never done that,” Fedora said.
Hood was one of the ACC’s top runners with 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, but he got just 10 carries for 72 yards against Georgia while UNC threw 40 passes. Hood is a tackler-punishing runner with the ability to wear down defenses. Getting him going on the road would be a big help.
The Tar Heels like to take deep shots in their fast-paced offense, but Trubisky failed to connect on a couple that could have changed the Georgia game. When the Tar Heels’ offense is humming, they’re churning out big yardage totals and pushing the tempo to wear down defenses. Fedora was pleased Trubisky protected the ball in his first start, but said he needed to do a better job with his footwork on those long balls.
“The offense will work, just do what you’re taught to do,” Fedora said. “And I think he was trying to do too much.”
STOP THE RUN
UNC came into the year knowing it would have to improve its run defense, but it didn’t happen against the Bulldogs and Nick Chubb. Georgia ran for 289 yards in the opener, and the Tar Heels have now surrendered 1,561 yards on the ground in the last four games dating to last season. UNC has to reverse that trend soon.
ILLINOIS ON THE GROUND
The run game the Tar Heels will be trying to stop churned out 287 yards and four touchdowns against an overmatched Murray State defense. But only 49 of those yards belonged to starting tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Illinois stuck with Vaughn, giving him 17 carries in a game it had in hand early. A more productive Vaughn will help pound the North Carolina defense and keep the Tar Heel offense off the field.
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