It was the start of a new era for Illinois football on Saturday afternoon, the Juice Williams era officially began with Ron Zook’s decision to start him in the Illini’s Big Ten opener against Iowa. But the star of the game for the Illini in Saturday’s 24-7 loss to the Hawkeyes was not Williams, it was the Illini defense.
All week leading up to the game the question asked to Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook was “who is going to be your starting quarterback?” Zook remained coy all week and did not tip his hat until Saturday morning when word started to leak on the pre-game shows and in the Champaign News Gazette’s pregame issue that Juice would make his first career start for the Fighting Illini. So, at 11:00 AM Central time, the Juice Williams Era of Illinois football officially began.
The era did not start out the way that it had been drawn up in the dreams of Zook, Williams, or Illinois fans, though. There was no 80-yard drive for a touchdown, there was just signs that Juice could move the ball with the Illini offense. A ten play drive with five rushes that went 38 yards before it ended with a missed Jason Reda field goal (the first one he has attempted all season). The offense was not the only side of the ball that seemed to get a jolt of energy from Ron Zook’s decision to start Juice, though.
The Illini defense held the Hawkeyes for punts on their first three drives, and intercepted the ball on the Hawkeyes fourth drive. Unfortunately for the defense, the Illini offense was not able to muster a drive that allowed the field position battle to sway in the favor of the Fighting Illini. With the game tied 0-0 midway through the second quarter, Ron Zook called on DaJuan Warren to perform a rugby punt from the Illini 19 yard line. The Hawkeyes rushed the punter on the right side of the line, forcing Warren to pull up before he normally does and “punt” the ball just twelve yards.
The Illini defense was backed up all the way in their own territory, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the Hawkeyes would score the first points of the game. One pass, and six rushes later and the Hawkeyes broke the nothing to nothing tie with a touchdown, taking a 7-0 lead after the extra point. It was now Juice’s time to lead the Illini offense on a drive to answer the Hawkeyes, but all the Illini offense could muster was a three and out. After a thirty-seven yard Kyle Yelton punt, the Illini defense took the field with Iowa on their own 46 yard line. Seven plays later, and Iowa scored another touchdown to build their lead to 14-0.
With the Illini down 14-0, and the offense not really doing anything Ron Zook looked to Senior Tim Brasic to bring a spark to the Illini, much like he looked to Juice Williams to do the same in the three earlier games this season. Unfortunately for Brasic, on his second play from scrimmage he threw an interception giving the Hawkeyes great field position with 1:47 left on the clock. Iowa quickly took advantage of the Illini’s mistake and scored their third, and final touchdown of the game to take a 21-0 lead into the half.
It seemed grim for the Illini as the second half started. This was a time so far this season when the Fighting Illini would have normally packed it in, but they didn’t. The Illini defense held Iowa to just a field goal in the second half, and drives of just five, four, six, seven (field goal), three, and nine plays.
Unfortunately, the Illini offense struggled to move the ball all game. Williams was not always accurate with his passes as many were air mailed over his receivers, and he threw three interceptions on Saturday afternoon. But when Williams was accurate, the Illini receivers were not catching the football. At one point early in the game, Williams was 1-11 and I believe there were five dropped passes that were attributed to the Illini receivers. Games like this are going to be learning experiences for Juice and his receivers, but as a fan you would definitely like to see some more catches.
Dropped passes were not the only problem that Juice had on Saturday afternoon. He made many freshman mistakes, and it still seemed like he did not have the touch to throw the short passes. He seems to throw the ball as hard as he can and just hope his receivers catch it, when a little touch on the ball would go a long way. The one pass that Juice has already shown to be very good at is the long throw. He throws the ball deep with some great touch, and is very good at leading his receivers to the right place on the deep throw. Williams has also shown to be very fleet of foot in the pocket, and when he is moving in the pocket, he seems to be more accurate than when he is dropping back.
Saturday’s game showed a lot of improvement from the Fighting Illini on the field. The defense help up much better than they have in the first three games of the season, and the maturation of Vontae Davis continues to show. The Illini offense struggled on Saturday with turnovers and dropped passes, but the poise and determination showed by Juice Williams is a sign that he will be a special player in the future.
Special teams again was a problem for the Illini as Jason Reda missed two field goals (his first two attempts of the season). Freshman Kyle Yelton punted well on Saturday, averaging 39.5 yards per punt, which makes the decision to use Warren’s rugby punt in the second quarter even more puzzling.