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Illinois Fighting Illini vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Preview and Prediction

Author:
Elijah Hood

Elijah Hood

Sometimes, adversity can be a good thing. It can serve as a motivating force that can bring a team together. After the first two weeks, it looks like that may be happening at Illinois.

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Tim Beckman was fired as Illinois' head coach due to allegations that he pressured the medical staff to get injured players back on the field. Whether the Fighting Illini rallied for their ex-coach or in celebration because he has gone, Illinois has shown life in beating Kent State and Western Illinois by a combined score of 96-3.

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North Carolina battled its own adversity after a gut-wrenching loss to South Carolina on the opening Thursday. The Heels came back with a 53-14 win over North Carolina A&T this past Saturday.

Illinois at North Carolina

Kickoff: Noon ET (Saturday)

TV Channel: ESPN2

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Spread: North Carolina -10

Three Things to Watch

1. Containing Wes Lunt

When the Illini quarterback was healthy in 2014, he put up some good numbers. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes last year for 1,763 yards and 17 touchdowns against just four interceptions. His problem was staying healthy. Lunt has started this year strong and has spread the ball around to several receivers, with Geronimo Allison emerging as his favorite target. UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s group has shown great improvement in pass defense, though it is still very early in the season. Defending Lunt will be the Tar Heels defense's biggest challenge to date.

2. Getting Josh Ferguson Involved

Despite facing very little resistance so far this year, Illinois has yet to really get the ground game going. The Illini are currently No. 92 in the nation in rushing offense at 140.5 yards per game. When a team rolls over weak opponents, you would expect higher rushing totals. Ferguson is the Illini’s lead running back and interim head coach Bill Cubit would like more from the senior. Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn actually has more carries but that’s not surprising considering the nature of the first two games. If Ferguson can get rolling it will make life a lot easier for Lunt and the passing game.

3. The North Carolina Offensive Line

The offensive line was a question mark coming into the season and this group hasn’t really answered a whole lot of questions just yet. But Elijah Hood has had success running the football and the offensive line must get some of the credit. However, quarterback Marquise Williams was sacked four times in the South Carolina game. North Carolina A&T didn’t pressure Williams but that was to be expected. Illinois doesn’t have a very strong pass rush, but the Illini are stout up front on defense. If the Tar Heels win this game, odds are that the offensive line played well.

Final Analysis

This is a huge game for North Carolina. The Heels have already lost to South Carolina and need a win over a quality opponent. With another FCS school in Delaware up next week, a loss would mean that UNC would enter ACC play without a win over an FBS program. And the Tar Heels begin conference play on Oct. 3 at Georgia Tech. For Illinois, this is the first real test of the season. Watch for Illinois to throw the ball all over the lot with Lunt early on, hoping the pass can set up running lanes for Ferguson. UNC will look to create more of a balance right from the start. The line keeping Williams clean and paving the way for Hood will be keys to the Heels' success. This will be a tight contes'. But North Carolina has the more reliable kicker and is at home.

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Prediction: North Carolina 27, Illinois 24

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.