Football reveals winning potential

Illinois tight end Jeff Cumberland celebrates a touchdown catch against Syracuse during a college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday. The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With the Big Ten season looming, Illinois needed to find some more positive signs. Syracuse was more than happy to provide them.

Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns, Juice Williams threw for one touchdown and ran for another, and the Illini beat the Orange 41-20 on Saturday.

For Illinois (2-1), which snapped an eight-game losing streak last week with a 21-0 win over Western Illinois, it was the Illini’s first win over a team from college football’s top division since a 23-20 victory over Michigan State nearly a year ago. Western Illinois plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly I-AA.

“The Big Ten begins next week, and I told them that will be real ball then,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “This should give us confidence. Our whole thing is continuous improvement, and people can see it out there.”

Especially the Orange (0-3), who hadn’t started a season with three straight losses in 21 years. So far this season, Syracuse has been outscored 118-32 by three teams whose combined record in 2006 was 13-24.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s not discouraging,” said Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson, whose lone road victory in three years was last year over the Illini. “We’re frustrated we got beat. They played well. We didn’t play well.”

Syracuse is accustomed to that – the Orange entered the game allowing 426 yards and 38.5 points. Illinois had 443 yards after three quarters and finished with 508. And the Illini gained 378 yards rushing, the most since they had 420 in a 42-23 win over Minnesota in 1975. Even little-used freshman Troy Pollard chipped in with 92 yards on 13 carries as the Illini averaged 7.4 yards per carry.

“I was extremely surprised at the ease we moved the Syracuse defense,” said Williams, who was 13-for-18 passing for 97 yards and gained 90 yards rushing. “They’re smart, strong and fast, but I was surprised we were able to run the ball like that. When things are going so well on the ground, the other players feed off that momentum.”

Big plays have haunted the Orange for a long time. Syracuse allowed 12 touchdown plays of 28 or more yards last season and gave up three more in the first two games this year, a 42-12 home loss to Washington and 35-0 a week ago at Iowa.

It was more of the same against the Illini, who took a 7-0 lead on the game’s first possession. Mendenhall ran right through a tackle by linebacker Vincenzo Giruzzi for 25 yards to the Syracuse 22, and Williams hit tight end Jeff Cumberland for a touchdown on the next play.

The Illini, who are at Indiana next week, made it 14-0 behind the running of Williams and Mendenhall, who scored on a 2-yard run, and led 17-0 at halftime.

“I saw some missed opportunities,” said Robinson, who has to be feeling some pressure with Big East play beginning next week at No. 9 Louisville. “Sometimes, missed tackles come down to athletes. It just isn’t coaching. You’ve got to be able to get them on the ground. When you’re playing the way we are, you’re looking for opportunities. I saw situations where I thought people should have made some plays. Now, the chains are moving.”

And moving and moving and moving.

After the Orange finally broke through in the third quarter on Patrick Shadle’s 44-yard field goal and a 2-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Sellers to pull within 20-10, the Illini struck back twice late in the period to thwart any hopes of a comeback.

Williams scored on a 10-yard keeper and Mendenhall scored on a 50-yard run, rumbling down the left sideline after breaking yet another tackle.