Big Ten: Donovan McNabb
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Joe Paterno wants a Big East team to join the Big Ten. He probably won't get his wish any time soon, but the next best thing takes place this fall. Syracuse will face three Big Ten teams -- Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State -- in the first three weeks of the season. It's rare when another BCS team not named Notre Dame plays two games against squads from another BCS conference, much less three.
To help educate us on the Syracuse Orange, I consulted Big East blogger Brian Bennett, who boasts plenty of expertise on the league. Get your notepads out and prepare to learn something as Brian fills us in on Syracuse as well as Cincinnati, which hosts Illinois on Nov. 27.
Also, check out my thoughts on how the Big Ten matches up with the Big East.
Adam Rittenberg: So BB, Syracuse is clearly trying to join the Big Ten with this schedule. Three Big Ten teams? Wow. Do Minnesota, Northwestern or Penn State have much to worry about with Doug Marrone's team?
Brian Bennett: Well, Adam, if this were hoops, then the Orange might well go 3-0. As it stands, the 'Cuse will more likely go 0-3. I really like what Marrone is doing in rebuilding the program, but the simple fact is that he's got a huge repair job on his hands. There just isn't much in the cupboard after the disastrous Greg Robinson tenure. That said, I think Syracuse could potentially put up a fight at home against Minnesota and Northwestern. Going to Penn State looks like a massacre waiting to happen.
AR: Hey, Penn State won the NIT last year! They might give the Orange a game in hoops (or not). What can Big Ten teams expect from Marrone scheme-wise this fall?
BB: You'll see a much more diverse offense than what Syracuse brought against Northwestern and Penn State last year. Marrone was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, who had one of the most creative and varied attacks in the NFL the past couple of years. The offensive system should be predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly, with some spread elements. The rushing game should be decent with Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey and Averin Collier. The offensive line is a question mark right now. On defense, former Michigan coordinator Scott Shafer is in charge, so Big Ten fans should be familiar with his schemes. Syracuse hopes he has more success than he did in his short stint in Ann Arbor.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Tom Dahlin/Getty Images|
|Juice Williams is prepared for the added leadership role he must assume this season.|
James, a potential starter at wide receiver, already knew he wouldn't be playing that day against Missouri after tearing his ACL in training camp. Williams started the game at quarterback, determined to muzzle his doubters after an erratic freshman season, but left in the second quarter after taking a blow to the head from Missouri's Hardy Ricks on a 4-yard run.
Together, they watched as backup quarterback Eddie McGee rallied Illinois to within six points before throwing an interception at the goal line in the final minute.
"He talked to me about not finishing the game," James said of Williams. "He was real sad and upset."
"He took that loss to heart," added Illini linebacker Brit Miller.
Fast-forward to Monday as Williams and James sat in the film room at Memorial Stadium studying Missouri. This time they spoke with a tone of optimism, sensing the opportunity that soon awaited them.
It arrives Saturday as Illinois heads back to St. Louis to face Missouri (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game has added meaning for Williams, who matches up against Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel.
"Even without the injury, it would still be special," Williams said. "The first game of the season, you prepared all offseason to get better as a player, as a leader, as a role model of this team. You're just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do."
A greater burden will be placed on Williams this fall after Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to pass more to exploit a deeper-than-expected receiving corps and a junior quarterback no longer prone to poor decisions and an unsightly completion percentage.
Williams likely will look to air it out immediately against a Missouri defense that ranked 96th nationally against the pass last season (256.9 ypg).
"I'm pretty sure he can't wait to show the world what he can do as far as the passing," star wide receiver Rejus Benn said. "He's labeled as an option quarterback, a runner, but he's a passer and he's going to show that."
Williams spent a week this summer working with Eagles quarterback and fellow Chicagoan Donovan McNabb, who encouraged him to rely on more than just his arm strength to lead the offense. After completing just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman and struggling early last season, Williams began to get comfortable and played his best down the stretch, most notably in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
He completed 6 of 9 passes against Missouri and added 11 rushing yards before the injury, which occurred when he started to slide on a scramble.
"I kind of learned my lesson," Williams said. "After that game, the coaches have pretty much been on me to run physical. As the season went on, I started running harder, breaking a bunch of tackles here and there, so it really paid off."
Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't expect Williams to think about the injury Saturday, which speaks to the quarterback's growing maturity.
"He has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media, the way he practices, all the things," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows what we all think is going to happen, that he is a much-improved player."
Williams should get help from his receivers. In addition to Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Illini will start James and junior Chris Duvalt, who had a very strong preseason. Not having the 6-foot-5 Jeff Cumberland (foot) will hurt, but freshmen Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott all are expected to contribute.
"I can't even imagine the feeling I'll have running onto the field knowing that I'm going to be able to play this year," said James, who started the final four games in 2006. "It's exciting knowing you can get out there and know where you are from the start, going against a top team like Missouri."
Despite the Ohio State win and a run to the Rose Bowl, Illinois enters this fall needing to shed the one-year-wonder tag. What better way to start than against a team that many around the country would have rather seen in a BCS bowl than the Illini.
"Being able to go out there and win a game against a top-notch program would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "It would hopefully make other guys start to believe in the Illini program, that the Illini guys are back and last year was not a fluke."