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 victory also avenged a home loss last fall to the Orange, the lone Syracuse road victory in head coach Greg Robinson's three-year tenure.
Syracuse (0-3), which hadn't started a season with three straight losses in 21 years, has been outscored 118-32 by three teams whose combined record in 2006 was 13-24. The Orange entered the game allowing 426 yards and 38.5 points. Illinois had 443 yards after three quarters and finished with 508. The Illini gained 378 yards rushing, the most since they had 420 in a 42-23 win over Minnesota in 1975.
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 made it 14-0 behind the running of Williams and Mendenhall, who scored on a 2-yard run. Jason Reda added a 32-yard field goal in the final minute to put Illinois up 17-0 at halftime.
The Orange finally broke through at the start of the second half, but only after an unusual gaffe on the kickoff. Despite the ideal conditions inside the Carrier Dome, Michael Cklamovski somehow topped the ball on the kick, giving Syracuse the ball at the Illinois 29. The Orange settled for Patrick Shadle's 44-yard field goal after three plays gained 2 yards.
After Reda's 50-yard field goal gave the Illini a 20-3 lead, Syracuse finally got a big play of its own. Curtis Brinkley broke a tackle by linebacker Antonio Steele and went 62 yards with a screen pass. Jeremy Sellers scored from the 2 on the next play to make it 20-10 and bring the home crowd to life.
Any hope was short-lived. Arrelious Benn gained 23 yards on a pitch left to the Syracuse 32 and Williams capped the drive with a 10-yard keeper.
Mendenhall later scored on yet another big play, breaking a tackle near the line of scrimmage and rumbling 50 yards down the left sideline. He scored his final touchdown on a 1-yard run early in the fourth period.
In last week's loss to the Hawkeyes, Syracuse had 1 yard total offense in the first half and didn't pick up its initial first down until six minutes into the third quarter. Against Illinois, Syracuse didn't get its initial first down until early in the second quarter behind sophomore quarterback Andrew Robinson.
Four of the Orange's five first-half possessions ended in punts, and they lost the ball on downs the other time when Brinkley was tackled for a loss on fourth-and-1 from the Illinois 24.