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Illinois dominates Murray State 52-3 in Lovie Smith’s debut

Friday night's ESPN game at USF is a perfect chance for Lovie Smith's Illini program to gain some respect. (AP/Bradley Leeb)

CHAMPAIGN — This wasn’t the first time a Lovie Smith-coached team topped the 50-point mark in a game.

The 2012 Bears hung 51 points, then a 32-year franchise high, on the Tennessee Titans during a 10-win campaign that ended with — what else? — Smith being fired.

But enough about that. Enough about the Bears. Enough with the ancient history.

What Smith is, and might be for a long time, is the coach at Illinois. And his debut as a college head coach — Illini 52, Murray State 3 — couldn’t have gone any better.

“We wanted to be 1-0 heading into [next weekend’s] North Carolina game,” he said, “and that’s where we are.”

Can you feel it? Mr. Excitement officially is back.

And, one week into his new gig, Smith — not to mention his highly touted coaching staff — clearly is doing some strong work.

The Illini were locked in from the jump against the Racers (0-1), a pass-happy team whose quarterback was intercepted by strong safety Julian Hylton on his first throw. That led to a short Wes Lunt-to-Malik Turner touchdown connection less than five minutes in.

A blink of an eye later, pressure from top Illini pass rusher Dawuane Smoot led to an interception by free safety Taylor Barton. On the first play of the ensuing offensive possession, Lunt hit Turner for a 68-yard score — the longest touchdown pass of the senior’s career.

Granted, this was against lower-division Murray State — subpar even by FCS standards.

But this also was Lovieball, if we can dare call it that, on display for a hopeful Illini Nation.

The big-strike offense — which also produced a pair of 56-yard touchdown runs by Kendrick Foster — was fun to see. Of greater import were the puny total of 165 yards allowed, the six sacks by five defenders and the three turnovers forced.

The Illini defense left a few turnovers on the field, according to Smith. Maximizing its efforts in that area is one thing Smith’s team will continue to work on.

“It’s critical,” Smith said. “It’s the winning edge. A lot of guys talk about it, but ours believe it.”

And why wouldn’t they? Two years ago, many of these Illini players were playing for a punch-line of a coach, Tim Beckman. Then came Bill Cubit, who never truly felt like more than an interim guy. Now the Illini are led by a proven NFL winner who has been assuring them for months that they can live up to their head coach’s universally respected name.

“It makes you want to do everything to the best of your ability,” Barton said.

Graduate-transfer inside linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr — perhaps the defense’s most important player — was into double digits in tackles by halftime of his Illini debut. His father is the team’s defensive coordinator and a former NFL star with strong ties to Smith.

“We believe in [Smith] because we know what the system has produced — guys like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Derrick Brooks and my dad,” Nickerson said.

Smith didn’t sleep well Friday night. Anxiety, excitement, questions galore — all were getting the best of him.

“There were quite a few emotions,” he said. “A lot of anticipation for the game.”

A 49-point victory is in the books. It won’t mean a whole lot when the Illini line up in Week 2 against a more talented foe in North Carolina. There aren’t a lot of good night’s sleep for football coaches.

Still, this was a good start. Illini Nation is excused for turning the hope a little higher.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com