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September 13, 2007It's week three of the football season and Syracuse is still chasing a win. That could change this weekend as the Orange welcomes the Fighting Illini (1-1) of Illinois to the Carrier Dome.
Last year, the Orange were in the same predicament, losers of two straight before heading to Memorial Stadium in Champaign and picking up a 31-21 victory.
A lot of the impact players for both teams from last year's game are back. For the Orange, Taj Smith built a name for himself after his performance and Illini quarterback "Juice" Williams almost had enough juice left in the tank to lead the Illini to victory.
Here's what to look for on Saturday:
If the Orange can get some kind of running game going, they could have a chance of putting some points on the board. Curtis Brinkley has struggled and that has forced Andrew Robinson to throw maybe a bit more than usual.
Through two games Brinkley has only gone for 40 rushing yards, a dropoff from where he was a year ago at this time.
Wide Receiver Taj Smith might light up once the Illini secondary takes the field on Saturday. Before his shoulder injury last season, Smith had his best game of his Syracuse career, going for 106 yards receiving and 48 yards rushing.
While the Illini might have improved since last season, Smith has to be licking his chops.
Look for Robinson to get Smith, along with Mike Williams, the ball often.
With the running game questionable, seeing the ball go through the air could occur early and often.
Can the defense stop anyone? Through two games the Orange defense has allowed 38.5 points per game. Giving up that number won't help you win anywhere in the country.
The linebackers stepped up somewhat against Washington last week, with senior Joe Fields and junior Bruce Williams getting interceptions, and senior Tony Jenkins recording a sack.
The veteran leadership is starting to come around and stepping up at home against the Illini could be the surge that they need.
The Illini offense is a little different than what the orange saw last year.
Quarterback "Juice" Williams is back and if you remember last year's game, the Illini started rolling after Williams replaced Tim Brasic.
Williams is helped out by freshmen Eddie McGee, who saw a lot of time in the 40-34 loss to Missouri, but only took one pass in the Western Illinois game.
Both players play the same way, with Williams having a slight edge because of his stronger build. If Williams can get the ball in the air early, it will open up his scrambling game where Ron Zook's offense can get some extra yards here and there.
At running back, Rashard Mendenhall does the job efficiently. He won't wow you with anything, but at the end of the game he's close to the 80 yard rushing range and you wonder how he got there.
Look for Mendenhall to do the same to an Orange offense that has allowed 23 first downs just off the rush alone.
When the Illini are able to limit an offense, like they did in last week's 31-0 romp of Western Illinois, linebacker Jeremy Leman is usually leading the charge.
For the season, Leman has 31 tackles, and is ranked number three in the nation in tackles per game. Through two games, Leman has 17 solo tackles, so putting two guys on him might be required.
The area of suspicion for the Illini defense is in the secondary. Defensive back Kevin Mitchell can cover guys, but he can't do it alone. If you throw out the game against Western Illinois last week, you'll see that attacking the side opposite Mitchell works.
In the season opening loss to Missouri, Tigers quarterback Chase Daniel was able to find six different receivers for 40 or more receiving yards en route to a 359 yard day.
For the defense to be successful, look for Leman to dictate things early on. If he can make a play to rattle the Orange offense it could be a long day for the Syracuse offensive line.
Player to Watch: Jeremy Leman
You could make an argument for Juice Williams or maybe Mendenhall on the Illini offense, but when you have a guy who can dictate a game from the defensive side you have to give him some credit. There's a reason why he's third in the nation in tackles. The Carrier Dome will find out why on Saturday.
This one won't be as tough as the prediction last week. The Illini put up 55 points in their first two games, while the Orange have only managed to get 12 points. What that tells me is Illinois has the manpower to put up points and the Orange just don't right now.
Another question to factor in is the Illini quarterback situation. When Juice Williams is in the game he causes problems for the opposing defenses because he can run with the ball, but then he also has tremendous arm strength to loft the ball 40-50 yards. That right there will just be too much for the Orange to overcome.