Position-by-position breakdown

By Jason Grodsky

Offense:

Quarterbacks: After a good performance in the first week of the season against Eastern Illinois, the Illini quarterbacks did a complete 180 degree turnaround. In last weekend’s game at Rutgers, senior Tim Brasic and freshman Juice Williams combined for just 60 passing yards. Brasic also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and Williams fumbled a snap. If the Illini are to get back on track this weekend at home at least one of Illinois’ quarterbacks will have to regain their form from the first week. Veteran senior quarterback Perry Patterson will be under center for the Orange this weekend. Patterson has been the starting quarterback for Syracuse since his sophomore season and ranks eighth all-time in total offense at Syracuse with 3,890 total yards. Last weekend against Iowa Patterson completed 21 of 38 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown and nearly led the Orange to an overtime upset victory over the Hawkeyes.

Advantage: SYRACUSE

Running Backs: For the second straight week senior running back Pierre Thomas led the Illini in rushing. However, Thomas only rushed for 38 yards last weekend against Rutgers, a substantial drop from his 126 yard performance against Eastern Illinois. In all, the Illini only rushed for 66 yards and only had one run that was 15 yards or more. Despite a poor performance at Rutgers, the Illini’s three-headed rushing attack of Thomas, Halsey and Mendenhall still hold an advantage over the Orange running backs. In his first season as the Syracuse starting running back, sophomore Curtis Brinkley has rushed for 117 yards on 23 carries, but has not found the end zone. But it’s not just Brinkley who has struggled to get across the goal line. As a team, Syracuse has yet to score a rushing touchdown.

Advantage: ILLINOIS

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Neither Illinois nor Syracuse has any player with over 80 yards receiving. After two games the Illini’s leading receiver is sophomore running back Rashard Mendenhall, who has seven receptions for 60 yards. The next closest player is sophomore receiver Derrick McPhearson, who only has three receptions for 37 yards. The Orange aren’t much better at the receiver position. Only senior receiver Tim Lane and junior receiver Taj Smith have over 50 yards receiving. Lane leads the Orange with 79 yards and 10 catches, but has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Both the Illini and Orange have yet to use their tight ends as weapons through two games. Illinois freshman tight end Jeff Cumberland has only one catch for 15 yards, while Syracuse senior tight end Brandon Darlington has one reception for five yards.

Advantage: PUSH

Offensive Line: What was considered to be the biggest improvement for the Illini coming out of Camp Rantoul didn’t show it last weekend at Rutgers. The Illini offensive line allowed five sacks and gave up seven tackles for loss against the Scarlet Knights. Syracuse’s offensive line is relatively young and inexperienced, as they return only two starters and only have one senior up front. So far this season the Orange have allowed six sacks, but its biggest struggle has been in short yardage situations. In overtime against Iowa the Orange were unable to punch the ball into the end zone on eight plays from inside the two-yard line.

Advantage: PUSH

Defense:

Defensive Line: So far this season the Illini have recorded only one sack against opposing team’s quarterbacks. The only defensive lineman to record a tackle for loss in last weekend’s game at Rutgers was senior Chris Norwell. While the Illini defensive front has struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it has only allowed 272 rushing yards and just one rushing touchdown through two games and held Rutgers’ Heisman trophy hopeful Brian Leonard to just 11 yards. Syracuse’s biggest weakness has been up front on defense. The Orange have allowed close to 200 yards rushing in each of its two games. In his first season starting, junior defensive end Jameel McClain has been the anchor of Syracuse’s defensive line, leading the Orange with three sacks.

Advantage: ILLINOIS

Linebackers: The Illini linebacker unit was the one portion of the defense that played well in last weekend’s 33-0 loss at Rutgers. Juniors J Leman and Antonio Steele each finished with 12 tackles to lead the Illini and junior Anthony Thornhill led the team with one-and-a-half tackles for loss. Leman also kept the Scarlet Knights out of the endzone by forcing a fumble on the goal line late in the second quarter. While Syracuse starts all seniors at the linebacker position, only Kelvin Smith is a returning starter. Through two games Smith leads not only the Orange but the entire Big East Conference in tackles with 29, 18 of which are solo.

Advantage: ILLINOIS

Secondary: For the second straight week the Illini secondary looked a bit shaky. The Illini gave up 145 yards passing last weekend against the Scarlet Knights and allowed Rutgers to average over 10 yards per reception. Even though the Illini struggled against Rutgers, it could have been worse. The play by senior cornerback Alan Ball and freshman cornerback Vonte Davis have been biggest bright spots for the Illini so far this season. Ball came up big for the Illini last weekend with seven tackles and an interception and seemed to always be around the ball. The Syracuse secondary has given up an average of 160 yards passing per game this season and has allowed just two touchdown passes while forcing five interceptions. Senior cornerback Terrell Lemon leads the Orange secondary with two interceptions on the season.

Advantage: SYRACUSE

Specialist(Kickers/Punters): The Illini switched punting strategies last weekend to take some pressure off of freshman punter Kyle Yelton after his first punt attempt against Rutgers was blocked in the end zone. The Illini used junior wide receiver DaJuan Warren as a punter four times and adapted the strategy that Eastern Illinois used against the Illini to squib punt. Warren averaged 35.2 yards per punt – 2.6 yards more than Yelton – and also hit a Rutgers player with a low bouncing punt that allowed the Illini to recover the ball for a turnover in the second half. Syracuse senior punter Brendan Carney is averaging 44.8 yards per punt this season and has pinned the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line twice. In the kicking game Illini junior Jason Reda has yet to attempt a field goal and has only made it on the field once last weekend for the opening kickoff. In his first year of kicking, Syracuse sophomore Patrick Shadle is three-for-four and made a clutch 41-yard field goal with six seconds left in the game to force overtime against Iowa last weekend.

Advantage: SYRACUSE

Coaching: It will be interesting to see how Zook’s young players handle the first loss of their careers. While at Illinois, Zook has never won a game following a loss, going 0-7 last season, but that was last year’s team and this is a younger team with a more positive attitude. Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson is also in his second year of attempting to turn around a program. In his first season the Orange went 1-10 and went winless in Big East Conference games with an 0-7 record. Robinson has yet to win a game on the road as head coach of the Orange.

Advantage: ILLINOIS