For the second consecutive season North Carolina plays Illinois in September, and the Tar Heels would probably take a repeat of their 48-14 victory at Kenan Stadium a year ago. The circumstances are different, though.
For one, this is a road game for UNC at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, which has some history. Red Grange played there. Three Illinois teams that won mythical national championships played there, too. More recently, football has been unkind to Illinois.
The program is starting over, again, under a new coach. Lovie Smith, who led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl as their head coach in 2006, is in charge and has a difficult task ahead of him in making Illinois relevant and competitive in the Big Ten.
So this is an important game early in Smith’s tenure a– a measuring stick game for Illinois, similar to the one UNC played against Georgia last weekend. To learn more about Illinois I invited Bob Asmussen, who covers the Illini for the Champaign News-Gazette, to answer some questions.
Here goes, in a little segment I like to call, “Ask a beat reporter who covers North Carolina’s opponent this week:”
Andrew Carter: Last season, Illinois began the season with a 52-3 victory against Kent State. This year the Illini defeated Murray State by the same score, strangely enough. I wouldn’t imagine there are a lot of similarities between these Illinois teams, though, based on the coaching change. How is Illinois different with Lovie Smith running the show?
Bob Asmussen: The major changes are the point of emphasis on both offense and defense. Last year’s team was pass first, run second. This year’s offensive plan is to be more balanced. You saw that in the opener when Illinois gained more yards on the ground than in the air. On defense, Tim Beckman’s teams weren’t nearly as aggressive as this year’s unit. There is more reliance on man-to-man coverage in the secondary, thinking that will allow for more pressure on the quarterback. It worked well the first week, but you have to consider the opponent. Lovie Smith talks about turnovers all the time and his team won that battle in the opener 3-0. That is another huge difference at Illinois.
AC: Things did not go well for the Illini in Chapel Hill last season. What gives Illinois hope that it will be more competitive than it was during that 48-14 loss at UNC last September?
BA: The game being at home is a start. Last year, when Illinois got behind on the road it wasn’t able to rally. The expectation for the current team is that it will be better able to handle adversity. And I think the Lovie Smith factor gives Illinois hope. He worked at the highest level in football and knows how to win games. There hasn’t been this strong of a feeling about the coach’s ability in a long time. I think you would have to go back to the John Mackovic era. What we don’t know is if Lovie Smith is able to win at a consistent level in the college game. Is he another Nick Saban? Probably not. But he might be another Jim Mora. At Illinois that would be more than good enough.
AC: Larry Fedora and his coaching staff last season seemed to genuinely believe that Illinois’ defense would be a formidable challenge. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but Fedora again spoke with concern about the defense earlier in the week. Is that complete coach speak or is there good reason to believe the Illini’s defense can better keep up this time?
BA: I think North Carolina should have concerns. The Illinois defensive front is as good as it has been in years. All seniors, they get after the quarterback and make plays. Much more aggressive than last season. Dawuane Smoot didn’t have big numbers against Murray State, but freed up his linemates to dominant a weak Murray State team. The unit has a lot of confidence and will play at a high level. Almost as important for Illinois is the improvement at middle linebacker. Hardy Nickerson was a star at Cal who transferred to play for his dad, the Illinois defensive coordinator. In the opener, Nickerson seemed to tackle everybody. He gives the defense a huge boost and has allowed the rest of the linebackers to play free and easy. The place for North Carolina to attack Illinois is in the secondary, but that is harder to do when the quarterback is trying to keep from getting sacked.
AC: UNC’s opener against Georgia exposed a few talent deficiencies for the Tar Heels, mainly up front on the defensive line. It couldn’t overcome those shortcomings. I’m guessing Illinois has an even greater challenge matching up with some teams, talent-wise. How much of a problem is that and where does Illinois most need to raise its talent level?
BA: A coaching change usually means the talent wasn’t good enough. And that is the case at Illinois. Two spots are obvious. First is the offensive line, which has some experience, but is also thin. In the opener, center Joe Spencer wasn’t able to go, so the Illini moved guard Nick Allegretti to center and used true freshman Darta Lee at guard. Lee might be really good down the road, but he was not ready for that game. Nor should he have been. He was replaced later in the first half. So, offensive line is a huge need area for Illinois in the near future. And the second spot is the secondary. If Lovie Smith wants to play aggressive defense, he needs corners who can cover and safeties who can run and hit. He has no Peanut Tillman on this team like he had with the Chicago Bears. He is out looking for great defensive backs.
AC: Can’t have this conversation without asking a Tim Beckman question. What was the reaction up there when you wrote that Beckman was working with UNC on a volunteer basis? Were you surprised to see that experiment end as quickly as it did?
BA: Most people were stunned. The idea that he would come back to Champaign-Urbana with another team really got people talking. Tim Beckman certainly had a large share of critics in C-U, but people who got to know him, liked him. I just think he wasn’t the right fit for Illinois at the time. He did a lot of really good things off the field that people noticed. I have written time and again, if Tim Beckman had gone 25-12 in his first three seasons instead of 12-25, he would have survived last year’s controversy. I am not surprised the experiment ended so quickly. I am surprised it ever started. I understand coach Fedora wanting to help his friend. That is a great instinct and speaks well to his character. But the charges against Tim Beckman were pretty severe. It would take an exceptionally strong coach to stand up to the backlash of bringing Tim Beckman on the staff. To me, the only two people who could do it would be Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. For Tim Beckman to restart his career, he probably needs to go to the NFL. I think he will get a chance. From a reporter perspective, it would have been very interesting to have Tim Beckman return to C-U. Very circus-like.
Alas, though, the good folks at Illinois will have to settle for the circus that usually surrounds the travels of me and Robert Willett, esteemed NandO photojournalist, wherever we go. Very similar, undoubtedly, to the kind of atmosphere that surrounds rock stars. We’ll see you in Champaign-Urbana.