Big Ten

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

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."

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.