Prognosticators have established Illinois as the favorite in this game, but the Illini have won too few games lately to consider any opponent an easy mark. Syracuse defeated the Illini last year in Champaign 31-21, and they believe they can win again. Add in the fact it will be the first true road trip for a number of young players, and it will require a top effort in the hot and noisy Carrier Dome.
The Orange fandom is upset with their 0-2 start, having lost to a good Washington team at home and at powerful Iowa. Coach Greg Robinson is feeling the heat from disgruntled alums and fans. Syracuse has a proud tradition and has been successful in the recent past, so patience is wearing thin. Coach Zook is leery of the scenario.
"The problem is they are 0-2. They have their backs to the wall. They've played two really good football teams. There's a lot of teams that could be 0-2 against those teams. We've got to go up there and play. We have to take care of our business. They're going to present all the problems we need, and we have to go up there and be prepared to play four quarters and play as hard as we can play."
Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch echoes those thoughts.
"Seriously, a lot of teams would be 0-2 with that schedule they started with. They opened with Washington and Iowa, so they're a tough team that came in here and whipped us."
Syracuse uses an offensive set called the "Pistol." It is a variation where the quarterback lines up in the "Shotgun" and then has a running back line up right in back of him. Disch explains their offensive philosophy.
"We've seen some variations of the pistol. Purdue has run a little bit of it, and some other teams have run a little bit of it. It's a combination of shotgun and "I" with one-back spread, and it causes you some unique problems.
"We've just got to give our kids as good a look as we can this week and see how we do. The back gets the ball quicker, and he has real good cutback abilities. So there's some danger. They're very multiple and they give you a lot of different looks before the snap. They use a quick passing game and try to run the football."
Coach Robinson believes he has the quarterback to run his system in sophomore Andrew Robinson (no relation). The 6'-3", 223 pounder had a decent debut against Washington, completing 20 of 32 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown. Playing on the road against Iowa Robinson struggled, completing only 7 of 20 for 79 yards. He will no doubt be more comfortable in his home surroundings and will be psyched to make up for his Iowa performance.
The Orange have a bevy of good pass receivers. Illini fans might remember Taj Smith. The 6'-1", 188 pound Smith caught a 65 yard touchdown bomb and added a 41 yard scamper for a score last year in Memorial Stadium. He was considered an All-America candidate until injured after only four games last year, but he is healthy again and poses a dangerous threat.
Sophomore Mike Williams (6'-2", 204) led the Orange last year with 461 receiving yards. Senior Rice Moss (6'-2", 200), a relative of Randy Moss and one-time Illini recruiting interest, and redshirt freshman Lavar Lobdell (6'-3", 200) are also top targets for Robinson. Lobdell received rave reviews in the spring, and there are high hopes for him in Syracuse.
Junior running back Curtis Brinkley (5'-9", 203) has struggled so far this year, averaging only 20 yards rushing per game. But he is on the Doak Walker Award watch list and will no doubt have a breakout game sometime soon. He is backed by senior Jeremy Sellers and freshman Derrell Smith. These backs don't compare with former Syracuse all-timers Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Ernie Davis, but few do. The Illini will need to clamp down on the Orange running game to force them into passing situations.
The Syracuse offensive line has been a problem for them. They have given up 13 sacks in two games while having trouble establishing a running game. The interplay with their linemen and the Illini defensive line will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.
Coach Robinson was a defensive coordinator in the pros, and he takes pride in it. Unfortunately for him, youthful inexperience and injuries have slowed the progress of his defense. They have given up an average of over 400 yards each of the first two games and will need to make improvements to neutralize the Illini's offense. They appear especially vulnerable to a quality passing attack.
Despite the problems, they have their share of top defensive performers. According to Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley, Syracuse presents problems for the Illini offense.
"They're a four down set, but they'll also go from a four down to a three down. They're primarily a middle field open type team. Their head coach is a defensive guy, so they mix things up. They present some challenges for us.
"They have a lot of takeaways, and they play hard up front. I think the front is the strength of their defense. We're going to have our hands full trying to keep us protected. If we throw the ball, we have to find a way to be effective throwing it, and if we run it, we will have to be efficient running it."
Indeed, the three turnovers Syracuse created against Iowa was the 12th time in Robinson's 25 game career they have had three or more takeaways. Senior cornerback Dowayne Davis (6'-0", 200) is an All-America candidate and has started 25 games in row. Free safety Joe Fields (6'-1", 210) and junior WILL linebacker Vincenzo Giruzzi (6'-3", 232) are among the tackle leaders. And junior Joe Maljovek (6'-2", 223) leads the linebacker core from his SAM spot.
The defensive line is strong and begins with Jameel McClain (6'-1", 256), a Ted Hendricks award nominee. McClain was an All-American last year and a Nagurski award candidate. He was tops in the Big East and 18th nationally with 9.5 sacks in 2006. And he was second in the Big East conference with 14.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore defensive tackle Arthur Jones (6'-4", 289) had 9 tackles against Iowa and leads the Orange in 2007with 3.5 tackles for loss.
The Syracuse special teams has some talented performers as well. True freshman Max Suter leads the nation in kickoff returns with a 24.7 yard average. Freshman punter Rob Long has been tremendous so far, averaging 43.2 yards per punt. And junior field goal specialist Patrick Shadle is a Lou Groza Award nominee. These athletes can give Syracuse a big field position advantage if the Illini can't match their performances.
Coach Robinson is known as a top recruiter, so like Illinois he is employing a large number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen. And that number will continue to increase as Robinson seeks improvements to gain victories and secure his coaching job. But as Illinois fans know, youngsters are unpredictable. If they relax at home, they will play well and give the Illini trouble.
Illinois' first road trip last year was the massacre at Rutgers, and they hope their first trip this year will be less painful. All those nervous, tight freshmen last year have grown up a lot since then. Hopefully, they will travel with the maturity needed to rise up against a loud fandom and pull out a victory. As for helping prevent another Rutgers, Coach Zook learned a simple lesson.
"We learned that when you take 70 guys, it's probably best not to have 35 of them be their first trip."
The Illini are not yet accustomed to winning when expected to win, so those who favor them by nearly two touchdowns may be overestimating their potential in this game. But if the Illini come out focused and determined to play well, they can win. And if they could somehow get a big early lead, Syracuse might remember its recent problems and lose focus.
The Illini have been there and done that. For instance, a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown gave the Orange a momentum the Illini couldn't overcome in 2006. Now, they'd like to see what it is like to be on the winning side of such a game. It would be good payback for the frustrating loss in Champaign last year.
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