Big opportunity looms for Illini football

By Peter Bailey-Wells, Sports editor

No disrespect to Western Illinois and Kent State, but the Illinois football season starts anew Saturday against North Carolina.

Losses to the Leathernecks or the Golden Flashes would have been significant, but after a pair of routs, it’s time for some competition with teeth.

Wes Lunt and the Illinois offense can score. They need to produce against the Tar Heels, who feature a high-tempo offense led by Marquise Williams, an electric dual-threat quarterback.

This game is likely to be a shootout: the Illinois defense is better than last season’s edition but hasn’t been in a fight yet. North Carolina’s defense isn’t much to get excited about either — the unit has giving up at least two touchdowns in its opening two games.

So far, we’ve only heard what Bill Cubit has to say after a win: he’s jovial, comfortable and humble. It will be interesting to see what he says after a loss, the first of which might come this week.

Or this Illini team could destroy the Tar Heels — that’s the conundrum of the nonconference schedule — because it’s tough to tell how good this team is.

Here’s what we know:

Lunt will get the ball to his weapons. Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson need to be able to do things with the ball after Lunt delivers it to them.

Mason Monheim and the defense will work hard. They’ve got the work ethic to compete with anyone, but lining up against an offensive line that has an All-American guard Caleb Peterson is a different task than facing teams from the FCS or the MAC.

Taylor Zalewski will hit field goals. I’m convinced of his legitimacy — the Illini finally have a Big Ten-quality kicker who can boot it in the clutch.

But we also don’t know a lot. This game is a toss-up. It should be fun to watch for fans of both teams and neutral observers alike. Offensive games are fun.

This is the first Illini game of the year that they could conceivably lose. And if they did, it wouldn’t be the end of the world — or the season — but it would be a sign of how high this Illinois team can fly.

This game could also become Cubit’s silver bullet — if he wants to keep the Illinois head coaching gig that he seems to enjoy so much, he needs a signature win.

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