Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Juice is Loose

This Saturday of college football is only a few hours old, but I'm already going on record by saying that the performance of Illinois' freshman quarterback Juice Williams will be the overlooked story of the day.

Maybe I'm impartial to Williams because he goes by the name "Juice," which happens to be the nickname of one of my best friends, but I don't think that is why his ability to lead the Illini to a 23-20 victory over Michigan State this morning was so significant. No, it is more to do with the fact that Illinois - the same Illinois that had lost 24 of its last 25 conference games and is coached by the woeful Ron Zook - was able to go on the road and beat a superior Big 10 opponent.

Now, granted, Michigan State had to be down after the crushing loss to Notre Dame, and granted, the Spartans aren't nearly as potent as the porous Irish defense made them look, but this is still a team that qualifies as at least halfway decent. They were, after all, a 26-point favorite in this contest. And Illinois beat them! On the road!

Perhaps you have to be living in the state of Illinois to really understand the significance of this, but if you don't, just take my word for it: this is a shocking development. And, by my calculation, the credit belongs to one person: Juice Williams. After the Illini were slaughtered by Rutgers and beaten by a hideous Syracuse team, Zook decided to turn the team over to his prized recruit. The initital results weren't good as Illinois lost a home game to Iowa by the score of 24-7 and Juice was a woeful 9-for-32 with three picks.

What a difference a week makes. No doubt it helped to play someone besides Iowa (who I still think is going to beat Ohio State tonight and win the Big 10), but you could also see Juice improve by leaps and bounds after having a full week of practice with the first team offense. He was decisive with his throws, carried himself with confidence, made several big plays, and - most importantly - wrecked havoc with his running ability, rushing 17 times for 103 yards.

It was an absolutely enormous win for a program that is completely off the national radar. However, with the electric Juice Williams coming of age right before our very eyes, it seems that Illinois football finally has something to be excited about for the first time in years.

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