Illini Fall to Syracuse 31-21

The University of Illinois football team suffered another painful defeat, this time 31-21 at the hands of the Syracuse Orange last Saturday in Memorial Stadium. Illinisports reports how inconsistencies and bad breaks combined to wreck the Illini's hopes for victory.

The Fighting Illini football team lost 31-21 to Syracuse last Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illini fans were counting on winning this game against an opponent who had lost 11 previous games in a row, so it is not surprising many of them are experiencing negative emotions.

Yes, it is a disappointing loss. Yes, the Illini had breakdowns that winning teams don't have. Yes, the schedule gets much tougher from here on, and the Illini will be underdogs in most if not all of those games. However, it is still far too early to give up on this team.

This writer is as frustrated with the situation as anyone, but we also see the potential for improvement. An analysis of the intangibles of the game are revealing and must be considered by any reasonable person when evaluating the team and its future prospects.

The tone of the entire game was set late in the first quarter. Still a 0-0 game, Syracuse quarterback Perry Patterson was flushed from the pocket and hit hard by aggressive safety Kevin Mitchell, knocking the ball loose. By a miraculous coincidence, the ball bounced right into the waiting arms of standout receiver Taj Smith, who ran untouched with the pigskin into the endzone.

Syracuse and Illinois were evenly matched teams who had both experienced many frustrating, confidence-shattering losses. This strange and momentous event caused Syracuse players to think, "Maybe we are finally destined to win a game." The same event caused Illini players to lament, "Oh, no, here we go again." The resulting confidence differential between the two teams, coupled with a strong wind that favored Syracuse in the important second and third quarters, did much to create a scoring discrepancy between the two teams.

Had this same event occurred in reverse, the Illini would likely have won the game. One could see Syracuse gain confidence and begin to play efficiently and with purpose, while Illini players began to press and play with doubt in their minds. By the time the wind was finally at Illini backs again in the fourth quarter, the outcome was no longer in doubt. One play does not determine the outcome of a game, but one play can create a chain reaction of negativism for a team frustrated by constant losses and bad breaks.

Illinois did come back and score against the wind at the beginning of the second quarter on a quarterback keeper by Tim Brasic, but Syracuse nullified any momentum advantage the Illini might have gained by burning their freshman cornerback Vontae Davis for a big play right after that. Davis bit on a well-conceived play-action pass, leaving Taj Smith wide open for a long touchdown bomb. Vontae will ultimately be an outstanding cornerback, but he must learn from mistakes like this.

Facing a 14-7 deficit against the wind, the Illini tried to tie the score before halftime. However, they began making a myriad of penalties that continuously took them backwards instead of forwards. Some fans assume these penalties were the result of bad coaching, but this writer disagrees.

It appeared the Illini players were trying so hard to fight back, they began to play as individuals instead of a team. Several different players made penalties, so it wasn't the weakness of any one player. Rather, a combination of frustration of being behind, fear of failure, doubt of one's abillity, and a desire to make a big play all combined to undermine Illini efforts.

Illini linemen have not always been called for this many holding penalties, and Syracuse defenders were not so big a threat they could not be contained without holding. Mental breakdowns produced these bad plays, breakdowns that are predictable among teams frustrated with losing.

If one will look at a tape of the game, one will see several times when Illini penalties were unnecessary to the outcome of the play. The players wanted to win, but they didn't KNOW they could win. So they ended up taking chances or losing poise just when they most needed to play as a unit and trust their ability to move the football down the field.

Despite the frustrations of the first half, Illinois still had a good chance to reverse its fortunes and pull out a victory. But Brasic tried an ill-advised pitchout deep in his own territory to begin the second half, and a Syracuse defender picked up the fumble and rambled into the endzone for another freebie touchdown. This ended Tim's day and Illinois' chances of building confidence for the stretch run. Syracuse players noted after the game how Illini defenders started hanging their heads after this latest insult, and they enjoyed pounding on the discouraged Illini from then on.

Illinois had a clever offensive game plan designed to get playmakers to the boundary quickly against Syracuse weaknesses there. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas sometimes shared the same backfield, and slot receiver DaJuan Warren was the recipient of several option pitches on reverses. Brasic ran the scheme beautifully and showed good skill with ball fakes and making good reads on option plays. Brasic looked the best he has so far this year. That is, until he had to throw down the field.

For whatever reason, Tim overthrew three straight wide open receivers 15-20 yards downfield. With the wind at his back, all he had to do was lob the ball on line to them, but he couldn't complete the passes. Had he done so, the Illini likely would have scored and held the early momentum. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the cards. When he did throw accurately, his receivers sometimes dropped the ball, so the incompletions weren't all Brasic's fault.

By the time Juice Williams replaced Brasic in the third quarter, the Illini were in a deep hole and were struggling to move the ball against the strong wind. Williams was only modestly successful in the third quarter, but he began to click with the wind in the fourth quarter. Granted, Syracuse by that time wasn't doing much blitzing and was just trying to run out the clock. But Juice began to give hope for the future by showing some of his vast skill.

Flushed from the pocket, Williams rolled right and lobbed a short pass over Syracuse defenders to a wide open Rashard Mendenhall streaking down the East sideline. Catching the ball in stride, no one was going to catch the speedy Mendenhall to the endzone. Later in the last quarter, Juice made an excellent long throw to Kyle Hudson, who completed the pass-run touchdown to conclude the scoring.

There is now something of a quarterback controversy. Brasic knows the offense better, while WIlliams has more athleticism and a much stronger arm. Most coaches would continue to start Tim Brasic since it is so difficult to have a diversified offensive game plan with a rookie at the helm. Most Illini fans will likely insist on seeing more of Juice Williams because he gives them hope for the future. Coaches Zook and Locksley have a difficult decision ahead of them.

On this day, the Illini defense played well enough to win. They actually gave up fewer points than Illinois scored. So if the two cheap touchdowns hadn't occurred, the Illini would be entering the Big Ten season next week with a 2-1 record. Defensive end Derek Walker put frequent pressure on Patterson despite being double-teamed often, and there were no big plays by Syracuse after the long pass in the first half. The Illini defense is improving and deserved a better fate.

Also improved on this day was Kyle Yelton's punting. As predicted last week, Coach Zook changed his protection scheme to give Yelton more time to punt. This allowed some runbacks, but it also allowed Yelton to have some success and gain confidence. Fortunately too, Yelton had the wind at his back for most of his punts, which averaged 40 yards. He still had some trouble against the wind, but field position was not a major deterrent to the Illini on this day.

The major problems, besides the bad luck situations that gave Syracuse two cheap touchdowns, were the play of the offensive line, the wide receivers and quarterbacks. The line is not living up to its reputation as the most improved part of the team and must improve quickly if the Illini will ever be able to reach their offensive potential.

The receivers also drop passes in practice, and this is not always due to Juice's bullet throws. The Illini have a quantity of receivers, but there are no go-to players who can be trusted to make clutch plays. The quarterback problem will only improve when one of the two takes charge and proves capable of performing his many tasks efficiently and consistently well.

Frustrated fans will continue to find blame wherever they look. Certainly, the coaches and players can and should continue to improve. But it is hoped the team will not give up on the season as some fans have done. There is still much to play for, and Illinois is definitely improved over last year despite the breakdowns fresh in fans' minds right now.

Who knows, one of these times the loose balls might just bounce into Illini arms and they will score repeatedly against a higher ranked foe. Illini fans would be pleasantly shocked to see how well this team could perform if it has confidence in what it is doing. There is no better time for this to happen than next Saturday when Iowa comes to town.

Many successful teams have talent no better than Illinois, but they expect to win and play accordingly. Coach Zook has emphasized "BELIEVE" since the day of his arrival. But true belief can only come with some success. Until Illinois defeats a foe ranked higher than itself, it may continue to suffer the vicious cycle of playing without confidence.

Go Illini!!!


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