Syracuse @ Illinois Preview

The Fighting Illini football team looks to get back on track as it hosts the Syracuse Orangemen this Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Syracuse is an improving team, but Illinisports reports Illinois can emerge victorious if it comes out confident and plays up to its ability.

The Fighting Illini football team gets a chance to reverse its fortunes as the Syracuse Orangemen travel to Memorial Stadium this Saturday. The Illini and Orangemen are both reeling from a down cycle that has seen many frustrations and losses. The Illini have an opportunity to demonstrate their improvement on the field and win back some fans.

Syracuse is a proud university with a grand football history. Their running back legacy that includes greats like Jim Brown, Glenn Davis and Floyd Little has helped make them one of the East Coast's powers. They suffered mightily during coach Greg Robinson's first season last year while learning a new system, just like Illinois did with new coach Ron Zook. But Syracuse recruits great athletes and is not expected to stay down long.

The Orangemen suffered an emotionally devastating loss last week in overtime at home against ranked Iowa. On the surface, one might expect them to have trouble creating another peak performance one week after a loss that was extremely close to being a major triumph. But they may see that game as a springboard to a more confident level of play. If so, they will be tough to beat despite their recent record of 11 straight losses. And Illinois' performance at Rutgers did nothing to put fear in the hearts of future rivals.

From writings of those close to the program, it appears Syracuse had trouble changing from a type of option offense to a West Coast offense brought in by Coach Robinson. Their quarterback Perry Patterson is a running load at 230 pounds, but he has struggled with the passing game. He did complete 19 passes for around 200 yards last week against a good Iowa defense, so he may be starting to come around.

Illinois fans with a memory may recall similar quarterback difficulties whenever former coach Lou Tepper changed offensive coordinators, and when coaches Gary Moeller, Ron Turner, and Ron Zook brought major offensive changes to their new Illini jobs. It is often easier to a recruit a quarterback to fit your system than to force an upperclassman to change his style. This appears to be at the heart of Syracuse's troubles.

The Orangemen have also struggled with their offensive line. It is huge, but it has three new starters and failed to overcome Iowa's goal line defense on seven straight plays to end last week's game. Syracuse has some quality runners and receivers, so growth at quarterback and offensive line is the key to their game plan.

Illinois faced a similar West Coast offense last week against Rutgers and was only occasionally successful against it. Syracuse also reminds one of Rutgers defensively as they use an aggressive 4-3 style taught them by their head coach, a former defensive coordinator in the NFL. There is no doubt Coach Robinson will copy what Rutgers did successfully to keep Illinois in its own end of the field. And he has a quality punter to help him gain field position.

We can speculate on an Illini game plan to defeat Syracuse, but the outcome depends primarily on Illinois' state of mind. Last week, it appeared bitter memories of previous blowout losses affected Illini upperclassmen and made them lose focus after the first quarter. Since the many youngsters on the team need veteran leadership to keep their confidence and aggressiveness at a peak throughout the entire 60 minutes, a quick emotional rebound is essential.

This is easier said than done. Illini players have to interact with thousands of students to and from class, and they have to read and hear about their failures everywhere they go. It might be easier to forget a blowout than a last-second loss like Syracuse endured, but it is never easy, especially when you are trying so hard to create a Phoenix from the ashes of long-term frustration. No game plan will work without a confident team taking the field on Saturday. It is up to the Illini's junior and senior leaders to pull the team together and renew their goals for the season.

And it is especially important for quarterbacks Tim Brasic and Juice Williams to grow up quickly and enter the contest with confidence and peace of mind. They must lead the offense, insisting on quality play by their teammates while doing their jobs efficiently without forcing anything or panicking. If they can do that, the offense is diverse enough and the athletes decent enough to get a big victory.

They will also need to study the Rutgers tape, as hard as that may be, to see what they should have done against that defense. After all, Syracuse will give them the same looks. Can they correct their mistakes and learn enough to exploit Syracuse weaknesses? Can they recognize blitzes and know who the hot receivers are? Will Brasic keep his cool and not fixate on one receiver or throw into coverage? Will Juice remember the value of touch and concentrate on completions? Will they both be able to eliminate turnovers and move the chains?

These are big questions that must be answered. If Illini quarterbacks can perform up to their ability and training, Illinois will be pleased with the result. If they can inspire their offensive teammates to a peak performance, Illinois can score even though Syracuse has some outstanding defenders.

Defensively, the Illini need to control the line of scrimmage and limit Syracuse's running game. And they must find some way to out-quick the Orangemen's offensive line to get penetration and apply pressure to the quarterback. Patterson will likely throw a number of quick passes to prevent sacks, but he is not known for a high completion percentage. Consistent pressure can reduce his effectiveness and perhaps produce some needed turnovers.

It is possible Coach Zook will change his punt protection package this week to give rookie punter Kyle Yelton more time to get his kicks off. Zook was hoping to use a style that would get his players downfield quicker to prevent long punt returns, but he may now be forced to keep more people back to help Yelton out. Kyle desperately needs the confidence that can only come with producing a few quality punts. If he can relax and worry less about the rush, perhaps his results can be improved.

More than anything, Illini players, coaches and fans need to keep a proper perspective on things and not let the memories of last week affect this week's game. Syracuse is vulnerable and beatable, but only if a confident, determined approach is used. The team needs quality fans to show up and support them with positive energy. Those fans who can realize the necessity of forgetting details of a game against an excellent opponent that snowballed out of control quickly are especially needed.

Illinois is definitely better than it showed last week. Coach Zook asks his players to "believe", but his fans must believe as well. If players and fans can do this while forgetting the past, a good result is definitely possible.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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