CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Few teams could understand the uncertainty going through the Illinois locker room once the school fired coach Tim Beckman a week before the season.
North Carolina, who host the Illini on Saturday, has two key players who do.
For fifth-year seniors Landon Turner and Marquise Williams, Beckman's dismissal following an investigation into allegations of player mistreatment and inappropriate behavior stirred memories of UNC's abrupt firing of coach Butch Davis a week before the start of training camp in 2011. Davis' ouster came amid an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct.
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''That's coming out with a chip on your shoulder,'' said Williams, UNC's dual-threat quarterback. ''I mean ... you think your fan base is like, `Yeah, we're just going to have another down season.' But they're proving people wrong.''
The Fighting Illini (2-0) certainly have gotten off to a good start under interim coach Bill Cubit. They outscored Kent State and Western Illinois 96-3 in the first two games and rank in the top five nationally in several defensive categories, while the offense managed its best two-game scoring output to start a season in seven decades.
Cubit said he's tried to be positive with players and keep them focused on details ''rather than have them just go out there and try to play on emotion.''
''Because that emotion and enthusiasm will get you somewhere,'' Cubit said, ''but it's not going to get you everywhere unless you know what you're doing.''
The Tar Heels (1-1) experienced that. After Davis' firing, they started 3-0 under interim coach Everett Withers, but faded to lose six of 10 - including a lopsided bowl loss to Missouri. Turner said the uncertainty that comes with a coaching change hangs over a team, no matter what players say publicly.
''We loved that coaching staff and we wanted to keep them around,'' he said. ''But there's still that seed of doubt in your mind and that can be pretty poisonous for a team. And it kind of showed as the year went on and it got less and less likely those guys were staying. Everyone was just kind of going through the motions.
''But it doesn't appear to be happening with Illinois, which is awesome.''
Here are some things to watch in Saturday's Illinois-North Carolina game:
RELIABLE KICKING: Nick Weiler is 3-for-3 on field goals for UNC with kicks of 47 and 48 yards. A year ago, the Tar Heels couldn't make a kick longer than 30 yards. It's a big boost for UNC's strong offense. ''I love the way he's hitting the ball,'' coach Larry Fedora said.
A BETTER LUNT: Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit says he's already seen improvement over last season in redshirt junior quarterback Wes Lunt, who's stayed healthy after an injury-plagued season and hasn't been hit often. ''He's got to be the big difference for us,'' Cubit said. ''He's got to be the X factor.''
RUNNING ILLINI?: Illinois is averaging 140.5 yards a game on the ground through two games, and even that modest production is padded by a lot late running in games that were already out of hand. ''Just move the ball,'' Cubit said, ''whatever way you can.''
HOOD'S ROLE: UNC tailback Elijah Hood got just 12 carries in the opener despite a big yardage day, then got more work but less production against North Carolina A&T last week. Hood's power running style certainly would help the Tar Heels this week.
DEFENSIVE STEPS: New UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has seen the overhauled unit get off to a good start after a miserable 2014 season, though he talks about wanting the team to keep making steps forward. The most obvious example? UNC has just two sacks in two games and needs to get more pressure on quarterbacks.
Associated Press Writer David Mercer in Champaign, Illinois, contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org .