Illinois' Natural: Juice's offense powers Illini

Bubba, Tank or Hoss might have seemed more appropriate at the time, but grandma must have known something when she looked at that chubby newborn in November of 1987 and dubbed him, "Juice."

Freshman quarterback Isiah Williams credits her for the nickname that now suffices for his proper name, one that perfectly summarizes the sweet talent and nourishing future he portends for the long-suffering Illinois football program.

"I almost died when I was born," Williams said. "I was kind of big … you know, big and juicy, I guess."

Kind of big? Try 13 pounds, 8 ounces big.

Given that, you know Williams' mother, Anita, must be the source of her son's ability to deliver under duress.

Take last week at Michigan State: Illinois is the homecoming opponent for a very surly bunch of Spartans, still peeved by Notre Dame's come-from-behind win the week before. The Illini are 26-point underdogs, having lost 24 of their last 25 Big Ten games. MSU hasn't lost in the series since 1992, and hadn't lost at home to Illinois since Williams was a 1-year-old.

All he does is throw for 122 yards and rush for 103, while shaking off an interception returned for a touchdown to lead the Illini 58 yards to the winning field goal in a 23-20 triumph.

"I can't even describe how good that felt," Williams said. "My confidence is sky-high right now. The game is slowing down for me every week. I'm getting great coaching, things I've never been taught before, and it's all starting to pay off."

Go ahead, be a wise guy and check the roster to make sure Ron Zook is still Illinois' head coach.

Yes, that's right Gators fan, the Zooker indeed still makes his home in Champaign, where he landed after three fateful and futile seasons trying to be the next Head Ball Coach.

The folks in Illinois were happy to grab him last season, and they're confident a last laugh is coming their way now that Zook has stocked the Illini roster with Williams, four other freshman starters and 26 first- or second-year players on the two-deep.

In fact, Illini Nation believes so completely in the guy FireRonZook.com loved to hate that there are whispers of bowl talk arising amid preparations for a home game Saturday against Indiana.

"We still have a long, long, long, long way to go," Zook said. "But the thing that makes you feel a little better is that now there is actual visual proof where people can see, 'Hey, they are maturing. When bad things happened, they let it go and continued to play.' That's part of the learning process you have to go through on the way to becoming a good football team."

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Williams is out of the Vince Young/Troy Smith mold -- a mobile athlete who can turn trouble into triumph in the blink of an eye.

All looked lost when he dropped a shotgun snap at Michigan State, but instead Williams kept his eyes downfield as he reached for the ball, then found it and lofted a 69-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Willis.

"That's just a player making a play, and that's what we needed to happen," Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "When he dropped the snap, the defense reacted to the fumble, and Jacob kept running and Juice made a great throw."

Williams has already thrown three touchdown passes of 65 yards or longer, the most by any quarterback in school history.

Yes, more than Jeff George, Jack Trudeau, Tony Eason, Dave Wilson or Kurt Kittner.

"We still have a long, long, long, long way to go. But the thing that makes you feel a little better is that now there is actual visual proof where people can see, 'Hey, they are maturing. When bad things happened, they let it go and continued to play.'"
-- Ron Zook

And the kid has made just two collegiate starts.

The first of those came in the Big Ten opener against Iowa. Williams started 2-of-16 for 22 yards, with one interception.

Zook stuck with him, however, and Williams went 7-of-16 for 139 yards in the fourth quarter to foreshadow his steady play at MSU.

"Coach Zook and coach Locksley have taught me a lot," Williams said. "I never used to know anything about my elbow level, footwork, those kinds of things. I always just got by on my athletic ability. They've taught me about going through my progression, trusting my linemen, and it's working."

Zook started the season committed to playing Williams, but agonized over starting him. This was not a flashback to 2003 at Florida, when Zook went to freshman Chris Leak in the fifth game of the season. Zook was convinced then that Leak could handle the pressure and the scrutiny. He wasn't as certain about Williams, afraid exposure to too much too soon might stunt the freshman's development down the road.

"It's easier said than done," Zook said. "We all know what he should think and how he should be. I got the feeling [after the Iowa loss] that he felt like he was carrying the city Public League of Chicago. I said, 'Juice, you've just gotta go play. Be you.' He's a prideful guy. He wants to do well and he's going to do well. I don't want the poor guy going out there and feeling like he's got the city of Chicago on his shoulders."

Williams processed that advice and played freely against Michigan State, impervious to the pressure when a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead evaporated.

Taking possession at his 20-yard line with 2:41 remaining, he scrambled for 8 yards on third-and-6 on the first series of the possession. Later, completions of 16, 9 and 8 yards positioned Illinois for Jason Reda's winning 39-yard field goal with six seconds left.

The stunning result seemed to suggest an overnight turnaround, but Zook has been gauging steady progress all along.

Just the week before against Iowa, prior to Williams having a steady fourth quarter, the Illinois defense had held the Hawkeyes scoreless until five minutes remained in the first half.

That was the longest span of shutting out an opponent since Zook took over.

"You can't buy experience and you can't buy time," he said. "We're kind of in the mode where we improve every time we step on the practice field, and every time we step on the game field we'll get better. That's the thing that's exciting for us as a coaching staff. We see that. Obviously, we're judged by wins and losses. You don't see the other things that eventually are going to kick in and hopefully take care of the wins and losses."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM1460 in Columbus, Ohio.