CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lovie Smith has made no secret that Illinois’ defense was the strength of the team.
On Saturday, the Illini proved him right, rolling up six sacks and pulling in a pair of decisive early interceptions in a 52-3 win over Murray State.
Quarterback KD Humphries threw the two interceptions on the Racers’ first two drives, and both led to Wes Lunt touchdown passes and an early 14-0 Illini (1-0) lead.
“It’s critical, it’s (a) winning edge,” said Smith, who was coaching his first game at Illinois and first game as a college head coach. “A lot of guys talk about it, but our guys believe in it, and that’s the first step: to get people to buy into it.”
Illinois crushed the Racers’ run game, limiting Murray State to -10 yards on 26 carries.
Murray State coach Mitch Stewart said he did not believe his team was overwhelmed by the idea of playing a Big Ten school, or facing a coaching staff led by a coach who led the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I forgot my phone before the game, I was going to get a selfie with (Smith),” Stewart joked.
With Illinois’ defense keeping Murray State (0-1) in check, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns heading to the bench in the third quarter.
Kendrick Foster also ran for a pair of 56-yard touchdowns for Illinois. He carried the ball just four times for 118 yards.
A year ago the Illini had just seen coach Tim Beckman fired, and Smith became their third coach in less than a year after Beckman-replacement Bill Cubit was fired.
Smith said the win, no matter the opponent, meant a lot to the team .
“We’re going to enjoy wins, period, no matter who it’s against,” Smith said. “But we realize it’s one, and tomorrow we’ll be right back at it.”
MURRAY STATE: Stewart talked before the game about his hope that his team would not give in to nerves. Early, the Racers looked a little overwhelmed with dropped passes, stumbles by receivers and Humphries’ dangerous throws, including the two first quarter interceptions. In addition to pressure from Illinois, Humphries’ early struggles may have reflected that, Stewart said.
“His footwork was awful back there. I think he was just antsy,” Stewart said.
ILLINOIS: Illinois showed it can force turnovers, as Smith preaches, and turn them into points. And it’s clear the Illini have some big-play capability. But even with 287 rushing yards, Illinois never really opened the holes in the Murray State defense Smith has said he wants to see for starting tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The sophomore finished with 49 yards on 17 carries. And tougher opposition is on the way in North Carolina and Western Michigan before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska.
Two days after Illinois’ season-ending loss to Northwestern last November, Foster announced on Twitter that he planned to leave Illinois in search of more playing time. The redshirt junior later reversed course.
Foster is the No. 2 running back on the Illini roster, but he had a career day Saturday. After his second long touchdown, he knelt on one knee.
“I was just so thankful. I’m just finally getting the opportunity to display my talent and show what Peoria, Illinois, produces,” the 5-9 back said.
MURRAY STATE: Those two early interceptions were Murray State’s only turnovers of the day, but they were big. Safety Julian Hylton intercepted Humphries less than a minute into the game, setting up a 5-yard Lunt scoring pass to Malik Turner. The Racers’ second possession ended with a Humphries interception by the other Illini safety, Taylor Barton. That pick was followed by a 68-yard Lunt-to-Turner strike and a 14-0 lead. The pass was Lunt’s longest college touchdown.
ILLINOIS: Smith says linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the son of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, is the quarterback of his defense. And the younger Nickerson looked the part Saturday. He had 11 tackles, a sack and one tackle for loss.
Illinois starting center Joe Spencer missed the game with an unspecified injury. Smith declined to talk about it in detail but said “it’s not a long-term injury.”
MURRAY STATE: The Racers open their home schedule against Missouri State on Saturday.
ILLINOIS: Illinois faces a tough test and its first Top 25 opponent of the season when North Carolina visits Champaign on Saturday. The Tar Heels handled the Illini last season in Chapel Hill, 48-14.
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