The Illini had not won a game in any dome since 1994, a span of thirteen years and nine games. This was their first road victory since Michigan State early last season. And the Illini are now enjoying their first winning streak since the first two games of the Ron Zook era, when they defeated Rutgers and San Jose State consecutively at home. They must still take a number of important steps, but they are well on their way.
Both Syracuse coach Greg Robinson and Illinois' Zook entered the game with identical records in their third years, but the Orange and Illini appear to be headed in opposite directions. Some of the things that happened to Syracuse Saturday reminded Illini fans of the end of the Ron Turner era, where everything seemed to go wrong. The Illini empathize with the Orange's plight but are excited they may finally be on their way to having an outstanding team.
Illini coaches knew they needed to get Syracuse discouraged early and take the fans out of the game, especially given how loud their dome can get when a packed house makes noise. And they did just that.
"One of the things we talked about pregame is we had to be prepared right at the beginning," explained Zook after the game. "They were. Both offense and defense, and for the most part the special teams until we had our moments there in the second half, were ready to play at the beginning."
Illinois opened the game with the ball, and they drove 70 yards down the field for their first score of the game. It was a practically perfect drive that was executed exactly as Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley scripted, and it deflated the Orange from the start.
Starting quarterback Juice Williams completed passes of ten yards to Jacob Willis and nine yards to Rashard Mendenhall on consecutive plays. Mendenhall piled forward for the first down. After Arrelious Benn caught a short pass from Williams for a one yard gain, Mendenhall scampered for 25 yards. Juice then scrambled right to avoid a rush and found tight end Jeff Cumberland open in the end zone for a 22 yard touchdown reception. Jason Reda's first of five straight extra points made the score 7-0.
Encouraged by the offense's play, the Illini defense looked inspired in forcing Syracuse to punt without making a first down on their first possession. Defensive tackle Chris Norwell had a good tackle to limit Orange running back Curtis Brinkley to one yard, and cornerback Vontae Davis knifed through to throw Brinkley for a two yard loss.
Juice had a 23 yard option run to highlight the second drive, but there the drive fizzled. It was a great opportunity to jump on Syracuse and demoralize them with another quick score, but the Illini offense lost some focus briefly. Coach Zook was not surprised.
"We've got to stay attuned to it. We're a young team, and we've got to learn how to win."
Illinois' defense again proved a strength as Syracuse again went three and out on their second possession. WILL linebacker Antonio Steele held Brinkley to no gain. And defensive end Will Davis and linebacker J. Leman combined to throw Syracuse quarterback Andrew Robinson for a three yard loss.
Illinois enjoyed excellent field position most of the game, a major contrast to their fortunes during previous losing seasons. Holding the Orange without a first down on its first two possessions deep in their own territory was huge. After Syracuse's second punt, the Illini began their next series only 45 yards from paydirt.
Juice and Rashard took advantage of Orange defensive weaknesses to rush the ball goalward. Juice completed one pass on the drive to Benn for five yards, but otherwise the ground was gained rushing the ball. Williams ran three times for 15 yards, and Mendenhall did the rest with 29 yards in five carries. His two yard touchdown run and Reda PAT made the score 14-0.
At this point in the game, Illinois had 131 total yards to minus four for Syracuse. And the Orange could gain only 7 yards on their next possession. It was at this point that the Illini lost focus again but still almost pulled out another score.
Kyle Hudson's punt return was nullified by a penalty. Xavier Fulton was then called for holding, putting the Illini in a hole. But Juice made up for it with a 14 yard run on a planned quarterback draw to give them a chance for a first down. The Illini then got lucky.
Rashard Mendenhall fumbled the ball driving for the first down, and the ball fell to the turf a yard short. The Illini recovered and were expected to punt. But a Syracuse player was called for a personal foul while wrestling for the loose ball, and Illinois kept possession. On third down, Juice tried a long pass to Benn near the end zone on a scramble, but Benn had to turn around for the ball and slipped just as it arrived. It was almost a great play, but it fell incomplete.
Anthony Santella's short punt pinned Syracuse back at their own 15 yard line, but it was here the Orange's offense got untracked. Combining Brinkley runs with short passes, quarterback Andrew Robinson led the Orange down the field. Illinois finally stiffened, forcing a fourth and one at their 24 yard line. Eschewing a field goal, Syracuse decided to run Brinkley to get the first down. But SAM linebacker Brit Miller, playing on his birthday, knifed through to throw Brinkley for a two yard loss, giving the ball back to the Illini.
Having just dodged a bullet, freshman running back Troy Pollard took the first down handoff 32 yards forward on an outstanding run. Juice completed another one yarder to Benn, and then freshman Brian Gamble took a pitch seven yards before being tackled. However, Pollard was then thrown for a four yard loss, forcing a punt. Santella's effort was caught on the fly by Joe Morgan, who downed it on Syracuse's 9 yard line. Again, the Illini had outstanding field position.
Syracuse then moved the ball 41 yards before the Illini defense stiffened. Key plays included another tackle for no gain by Brit Miller and Justin Sanders' pass breakup to force a fourth down. The Illini began their final drive of the half at their own 12 yard line, but that didn't deter them.
Running their two-minute offense, the Illini moved quickly downfield. Pollard ran consecutively for 3 and 12 yards, and a late hit made scoring a feasible option. Pollard excited the Illini fandom with another 14 yards. Juice then completed passes to Gamble for 6 yards and Benn for 19, but the drive stalled at that point. Reda entered for his first field goal attempt of the year. His successful 32 yarder made the score 17-0 with 43 seconds left in the half.
Halftime statistics demonstrated the Illini's total dominance. They had gained 250 total yards compared to only 114 for Syracuse. And 175 yards of the Illini total came on the ground with Mendenhall, Williams and Pollard splitting the chores. Daniel Dufrene had two early carries, but Coach Zook held him out thereafter after he suffered a minor injury.
"Daniel (Dufrene) kind of tweaked his ankle," explained Zook. "I don't think it's bad. Troy was having the night, so we just left him in there."
The second half was a mixed bag of Illini successes tinged with a couple of glaring mistakes on special teams to give Syracuse opportunities. The second half kickoff was a unique play. The Illini had practiced an onsides kick in practice because they saw on tape that Syracuse left the middle of the field open. Unfortunately, kicker Mike Cklamovski dubbed his effort, and the ball didn't go the required 10 yards. When it was also learned Joe Morgan was offsides on the play, Illinois was credited with a negative one yard kickoff.
"We worked on that, and we worked on that," said Zook. "It was a bad kick, as simple as that. He's a young guy. It was there, 100% there. Joe was offsides on the play too. I told the defense (at halftime) that if this thing didn't work, they had to go stop them."
And stop them they did. Starting at the Illinois 29 yard line, Syracuse found the Illini defense just as strong as the first half. Defensive end Derek Walker deflected one Robinson pass, and Will Davis and Kevin Mitchell pressured Robinson into another incomplete pass. But Syracuse kicker Patrick Shadle had no trouble making the first of his two 42 yard field goals, giving Syracuse brief hope at 17-3.
It is at times like these when successful teams neutralize the momentum gained by their opponent by moving down the field for a score. And that is exactly what the Illini did.
Mendenhall, Pollard and Juice shared the rushing load. Juice also had a 9 yard completion to Mendenhall, although Rashard did drop a catchable ball a short time later to slow the drive. A holding call forced Illinois out of position and led ultimately to Jason Reda' 50 yard field goal, the second longest of his fine career.
Syracuse tried to make a game of it. Curtis Brinkley grabbed a short flair pass from Robinson, broke an Antonio Steele tackle on the sideline, and sped downfield 62 yards before being caught from behind by Dere Hicks at the two yard line. Jeremy Sellers drove the final two yards for the touchdown, making the score 20-10.
"That's the thing about tackling," Zook explained. "We tell them all the time it's intensity, it's having your motor running at all times. The minute you lose your intensity just a little bit, that happens. We've got to learn from that."
If Syracuse had renewed hope, it was short-lived. Playing with purpose, the Illini drove 80 yards in nine plays for the score that put the game away. Consecutively, Rashard ran for 15 yards; Juice ran for 11; Benn bolted loose for 23; Juice passed to Rashard for 4; Juice laid a devastating block on an Orange defensive tackle while springing Benn for 13 yards on a reverse; Juice ran for 4 and Rashard for 3; Juice threw to Brian Gamble for 8; and Juice ran an option the final ten yards for the score. It was perhaps the Illini's most efficient drive of this young season.
The 27-10 score quickly became 34-10. Derek Walker, Vontae Davis and Antonio Steele led the Illini defense in forcing a three and out, so the Illini took possession again at their own 24 yard line. A pass interference call after Williams avoided a blitz was an imporant play in their drive. But then Mendenhall took over. After running for nine yards on first down, he burst through the porous Syracuse defense and outran their secondary to complete a 50 yard score with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
Illinois then forced another three and out, with Dere Hicks making a nice play to break up a pass being the big highlight. Beginning the fourth quarter with the ball, the Illini turned to backup Eddie McGee to quarterback the offense. And Eddie proved the Illini have two excellent quarterbacks ready to play.
McGee completed two passes in the series, the first a short toss to Gamble, and the second a 27 yard pass over the middle to wide open tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. McGee also ran for seven yards on two carries, and he was aided by four Pollard runs totaling 23 yards. A Benn option run of two tough yards placed the ball at the one, and Mendenhall powered in from there, making the score 41-10.
Syracuse was able to move the ball on their next possession by combining short runs with short passes. But SAM linebacker Rodney Pittman garnered a tackle for loss of two yards on Robinson, and defensive tackle Mike Ware sacked Robinson for a 9 yard loss, forcing another field goal attempt. Shadle converted, making the score 41-13.
This is where the Illini's second special teams blunder gave Syracuse a gift scoring opportunity. Returner Chris Duvalt hesitated when faced with a short Orange kickoff, allowing Syracuse to recover the ball at the Illini 23 yard line. With reserves playing against reserves, the Orange completed the short drive with an 11 yard touchdown pass from Cameron Dantley to tight end Jawad Nesheiwat, making the final score 41-20.
Illinois completely dominated game statistics. They ended with 508 yards of total offense, 378 of those being rushing yards. Juice Williams ended with 13 pass completions in 18 attempts for 97 yards and one touchdown, and he added a second touchdown while scampering 90 yards rushing in 12 attempts. Eddie McGee was two for two passing for 33 yards and added seven yards rushing.
Juice's outstanding overall play was nothing new to Coach Zook.
"His play really didn't surprise me. I saw him throw one bad ball which was a little high, but other than that I thought he did great. He ran the option the way he was supposed to run it. He's a good player, and it's good to win and have him make some plays also. It truly is an option when he has the ball. They have to respect his ability to run. What he does doesn't surprise me. He's a heck of a football player who's getting better. He's the first to tell you he's got a lot to work on."
Rashard Mendenhall had a big game for the Illini despite one fumble, rushing for 150 yards in 16 carries and three touchdowns. Troy Pollard amasses 92 yards in 13 carries, showing quick moves that excite the Illini fandom. Arrelious Benn added 28 yards in four carries.
Benn led receivers with four catches for 26 yards, while Brian Gamble and Rashard Mendenhall added 3 catches for 20 yards each. Michael Hoomanawanui's 27 yard reception was the longest Illini pass completion on a day when passing was not essential and served merely to set up the rushing attack.
In contrast, Syracuse had 286 yards of total offense, with only 63 yards on the ground. Robinson ended with 17 for 26 passing and 208 yards.
J Leman led the Illini defense with eight tackles, while Antonio Steele and Brit Miller added seven tackles each.
Much was accomplished on this day. The young Illini are learning how to win on the road, and many players are gaining experience that will be essential later in the season.
"The offensive staff, and the whole coaching staff did a great job. We're going to need everybody. We brought 70 players and 63 played, and I knew before we started that two of them weren't going to play. That means that 63 out of 68 guys played. That's what we have to do is play as many guys as we can."
The Illini will savor this victory, but not for long.
"We're a young team that makes mistakes, but we're getting better. I told them to enjoy it for 24 hours and then go get the Big Ten. A lot of guys on the team know the importance of the Big Ten and what we have to do. It was good to get on the road and get a win. That team (Syracuse) is a little bit better than what people think."
The Indiana Hoosiers are next on the agenda. It is another road game against a team with three wins under its belt.
"As long as we keep that attitude and stay hungry going into the Big 10. Obviously, we have a great, great challenge next week. It's an opportunity for us. This is my third year, and I have never beaten Indiana, so it's important we go there ready to play."