UNC vs. Illinois: Things worth watching

Game day in Champaign is upon us. Almost. I’ve never been before. For any of us crazy enough to do this for a living – pursue a career as a traveling journalist, that is – there’s still a rush about covering something in someplace new.

I wrote about that not long ago, when I listed the 50 things I was most looking forward to experiencing while covering UNC this season. We can check off Dragon Con and everything else associated with Atlanta and Week 1. This weekend comprised No. 9 – a new dateline: Champaign, Ill.

This is the second consecutive season UNC and Illinois are playing. It wasn’t close last season, a 48-14 victory for the Tar Heels, and a win that, in some ways, foreshadowed all that was to come during an 11-win regular season that ended with UNC the ACC’s Coastal Division champs, bound for the ACC Championship game.

If you remember, the game against Illinois was a swing game for UNC last year, viewed as the kind that could set a course one way or the other. The Tar Heels began the season with a sloppy loss against South Carolina. They followed that up with an expected victory against North Carolina A&T. Then came the Illini, traveling down to Chapel Hill. UNC’s first test.

Didn’t exactly turn out that way. Illinois didn’t provide much of a challenge. The Tar Heels ran for 254 yards – their third-highest total of the season, it turned out – and it ended without any kind of suspense or drama. It just might be different this year, at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. The Illini have a new coaching staff. The defensive line is stout. The athletic director is pleading with people to show up.

Without further delay, here are five things to watch/consider/think about when UNC and Illinois play on Saturday:

1. UNC’s offensive line vs. Illinois’ defensive line

Ask Chris Kapilovic how UNC’s offensive line played against Georgia, and he’ll tell you, “they could be better.” Kapilovic, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, was OK with the line’s performance last weekend, but not enthralled.

His full explanation:

“Lucas (Crowley) and (Caleb) Peterson played really, really well. I mean, they did a really good job. (Tommy) Hatton, for his first start, he held up. I thought we were inconsistent at tackle at times. We never saw in pass (protection) where guys (were) just getting whipped and cutting guys loose, per se. But you saw some times where they kind of condensed the pocket on us and so my expectation for those guys (is) perfection.”

A high expectation, indeed. Crowley is UNC’s center and Peterson the left guard. Hatton, the other lineman Kapilovic singled out, had been starting at right guard, but he hasn’t practiced all week. Kapilovic said Hatton is “working through some things,” and it seems unlikely Hatton will play on Saturday. In which case UNC would rely on R.J. Prince, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior. The Tar Heels, if you remember, are already down one offensive lineman who was expected to start.

John Ferranto was lost before the season. Depth on the interior of the line is already a problem, and just in time for UNC to encounter a formidable test against Illinois’ defensive front, which returned three starters from last season.

Said Kapilovic: “They’re very good up front. I’m thinking back and they’re as good as most anybody we’ve played. There’s been a few teams we’ve played that have been off the charts. But they – they play really hard, for one. All four of them play really hard.”

2. How Mitch Trubisky handles his second start

Trubisky began the season with enormous expectations, ones that were perhaps suffocating during his first college start last weekend in Atlanta. He never looked comfortable. He missed deep throws that were open (more on that in a second) and, overall, just didn’t play particularly well.

“I was disappointed and frustrated,” Trubisky said earlier this week. “I know it’s a learning process. I’ve just got to try not do too much. Just do my job. I know my guys still have faith in me and I have faith in them. I’m going to get it fixed and just make it happen.”

This is an important game for Trubisky. A rebound performance would be significant for a variety of reasons, but especially psychologically. And if it doesn’t happen the way he wants, again, then all of a sudden the pressure mounts.

It wouldn’t be relieved next week against James Madison, because UNC is supposed to look good against James Madison. The week after that, on Sept. 24, UNC plays its first ACC game against Pitt, and a trip to Florida State follows that. Trubisky needs a good game. How does he respond on Saturday?

3. Can the Tar Heels make their layups?

Speaking of Trubisky, the Tar Heels should have an advantage in the passing game – and especially the deep passing game. The secondary isn’t considered a strength of the Illinois’ defense. Meanwhile, UNC’s receiving corps is supposed to be an asset.

UNC had its chances down field against Georgia last weekend but didn’t connect on any long passing attempts. Later, UNC head coach Larry Fedora described those opportunities as “layups.”

“If we hit on some of those big plays that I expected us to, some of the layups that we got, and it may be a different style of game,” he said of the Georgia loss. “But it just – it wasn’t.”

That wasn’t the last time we heard “layups” during the week. Kapilovic also used it.

“We had some opportunities Saturday that were really layups,” he said, “and we didn’t connect on any of them. I’m not pointing fingers at who but you hit one or two of those and all of a sudden the whole thing’s different. But we didn’t get it done. We didn’t execute as an offense, and that’s what irritates you and disappoints you because we have the people to do that.”

The layup talk gives the impression that the UNC staff really thought that some of Trubisky’s throws should have been gimmies in Week 1. It didn’t turn out that way, though. Now the question is if the Tar Heels convert those would-be layups against Illinois. The Tar Heels should have their chances.

4. The role of running game, and Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan

So much was made after the Georgia game of play-calling, and UNC’s decision to pass more than twice as often as it ran – despite running more than twice as effectively as it passed. UNC gained 159 yards rushing against Georgia, yet only ran 19 times. It gained 156 yards, meanwhile, on 40 pass attempts.

It seemed, from the outside, a bit backward. But as Fedora explained on Monday, UNC’s offense is not quite as simple as calling a play from the sideline and executing it. There are reads involved, based on what the defense is showing. Trubisky has some authority to determine whether a play will be a run or pass.

Still, UNC averaged more than 8 yards per carry last weekend. Senior T.J. Logan gained 80 yards on six carries; Elijah Hood, a junior, had 72 yards on 10 carries. Fedora said he never enters a game planning to run, or pass, a given number of times. And given the strength of Illinois’ defensive front, maybe the running game isn’t as available as it was last week.

Yet if the passing game falters, and if the Tar Heels continue to miss those layups, you have to wonder whether the running game would become more of a focus. It makes sense that it would.

5. How the UNC run defense responds

Ah, the run defense. There’s a reason why it was such a focus entering the season. Well, there are several reasons, actually. For one, the Tar Heels couldn’t stop the run at the end of last season, in its final three games against N.C. State, Clemson and Baylor.

Second, UNC began this season against Georgia, one of the most formidable running teams anywhere – as long as Nick Chubb is healthy and running effectively. Check and check, for Chubb. He essentially did what he wanted last weekend and gained 222 yards on 32 carries.

Illinois doesn’t have anyone like Chubb, or close to it. And so, by default, UNC’s rushing defense will be better. “Better,” though, is a relative term, and after such a rough first week UNC needs to show that it can successfully defend the run.

Last year, the Illini gained 227 yards rushing against UNC. It was Illinois’ second-highest rushing total of the season. Illinois’ leading rusher from last year, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, is back. The Illini offensive line is a weakness, though, and even though the Tar Heels’ defensive front is banged up it should use this game as an opportunity to build some confidence.

So there you have it. See you at Memorial Stadium.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer