It’s been an impressive start for the Illini, 2-0 with a pair of blowout wins. They’ve outscored opponents 96-3. They’ve yet to allow a touchdown.
But as impressive as the start has been, it needs to be taken with a grain, perhaps an entire shaker of salt. The two monster wins have come against Kent State and Western Illinois.
No disrespect, but those two teams aren’t exactly the kind of opponents that build a College Football Playoff resume.
It’s why, in the season’s third week, we should finally get an idea about what this Illini team really is. This weekend brings a road trip to Chapel Hill to take on a North Carolina team that reached a bowl game last season, has a dangerous quarterback and has already tested itself, losing a Week 1 matchup with South Carolina.
“This week here it’s going to get tested because it’s been fairly easy the first two games,” interim head coach Bill Cubit said during his weekly press conference Monday. “Things have really happened positive for us. Now it has not been easy for us to accomplish that. But it’s been fairly easy because nothing’s really going against us except for the turnovers.”
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These Illini players deserve plenty of praise and admiration for how they’ve started the season. Most everyone labeled the program a disaster when former head coach Tim Beckman was fired a week before the start of the campaign. And though weather is out of the Illini’s control, a severe-weather delay that pushed the season-opener back a day seemed all too symbolic of how everything was going wrong in Champaign.
But the Illini have responded with a pair of demolitions, a defense that’s been torched by every kind of opponent the past two seasons leading the way. Yes, through two weeks of the college football season, Illinois has statistically the best defense in the Big Ten and the one of the top five in the country.
But that’s been against Kent State and Western Illinois. Saturday’s matchup with North Carolina should paint a more accurate picture. That being said, Cubit doesn’t want people thinking that Illinois is only capable of registering wins against lower competition.
“They’re a lot better,” Cubit said of North Carolina compared to Illinois’ two season-opening opponents. “But we’ll play better, too. Our kids will go out there, they have some confidence and they’re good players. It’s not like we’re going to go in overmatched.”
Illinois hasn’t won a non-conference road game in quite some time, a 2007 trip to Syracuse the last one that produced a victory. Since, there have been losses at Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Fresno State, Arizona State and Washington.
And aside from the general difficulty of playing a Power 5 team on the road, North Carolina presents plenty of its own challenges.
Quarterback Marquise Williams has a lot of talent, and he had some throwing the word “Heisman” around before the season began. That conversation was all but snuffed out thanks to three interceptions in the season-opener against South Carolina. But Williams is still a mighty good player, and he can beat teams in a number of ways, already owning North Carolina’s career record for rushing yards by a quarterback and ranking in the top four in program history in passing yardage, too.
Cubit voiced his concern about playing against North Carolina’s high-tempo offense and how his players haven’t seen anything like that in the first two games. But interestingly, he also mentioned a downside to these two blowout wins in which his defense has looked so terrific.
“The bad thing is our defense hasn’t played a whole game,” Cubit said. “They played a little bit more than a half (against Kent State), and then this past week probably played about two-thirds of the game. So we’ll simulate (the high-tempo offense) in practice, have two huddles going at the same time and just make it as much of a chaos for our defense so they get used to it during practice.”
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We’ll see if the Illini can keep rolling after two dominant performances to start the season. A win at North Carolina could have big implications, setting Illinois up for a possible sweep of the non-conference schedule with Middle Tennessee State visiting Champaign in the final game before Big Ten play begins. That would mean just two victories against conference opponents needed to get the Illini to a second consecutive bowl game, something that didn’t quite look possible when the season began, given the difficulty of that Big Ten slate.
But in yet another example of a team brought closer together by something expected to tear it apart, the Illini have seemed to rally around Cubit and one another in the wake of Beckman’s firing.
To this point, it’s manifested itself in great play and a pair of wins in as many tries.
“I think the one thing that we’ve all been trying to do is be so positive with our players and tell them how good they could be. I think they’ve reacted to that pretty well,” Cubit said.
“There’s a process that has to go on. And if you look at the really big picture, at times you can get distracted and you can let that noise really affect you. If everybody was out there and they didn’t understand the game and they’re just out there listening to people outside, they wouldn’t play as effective because there’d be some negative things in there. I always talk about (how) you’ve got to have positive thoughts. Well where’s the positive thoughts? Think about how you’re going to make the play, have the self confidence that you can go make that play, visualize success.”