Williams, Reda lead Illini over Spartans

Brad Vest The Daily Illini Isiah ‘Juice’ Williams attempts to split Michigan State defenders during Saturday’s game September 30, 2006. Williams ended the game with 103 yards rushing in 17 attempts, helping drive the Illini over Michigan State in their 23-20 win.

By Courtney Linehan

EAST LANSING, Mich. – With 1:26 on the clock, Jason Reda steps to the ball, winds up, and knocks it full force into the practice net. It’s working on the sidelines. Now it just needs to work on the field.

It’s late in the fourth quarter, and Michigan State has just called a timeout after coming from behind to tie it up. The Illini have the ball for third-and-6 on their own 24, and are trying to move close enough for the score. Reda knows that as Illinois’ kicker, the whole game will likely come down to him. He’s wrestled control of the practice net. Now it’s just Reda and the ball, one fluid motion after another, gearing up for the inevitable field goal in the game’s waning seconds.

“I asked Reda how far we needed to get it for him and he said for us to just get it to the 30 yard line,” head coach Ron Zook said. “I told our guys to do it just like we do in practice, that we needed the field goal.”

A few feet away, Juice Williams is surrounded by teammates and coaches, getting last minute instructions as he prepares for the first true pressure situation of his college career. The freshman has quarterbacked Illinois to what could be its first Big Ten road win since 2002.

All game he’s looked solid, so far completing 6-of-13 passes for 91 yards, including a 69-yard first-quarter Hail Mary to Jacob Willis for a touchdown and the early lead. He’s rushed 15 times for 91 yards.

But he knows it all comes down to the next 86 seconds.

“So many things were going through my head,” Williams said after the game. “My team is depending on me to lead the drive. I’m trying not to fumble the ball, trying not to throw an interception.”

The timeout ends, Ryan McDonald snaps to Williams, Williams tucks and trucks for 8 yards and the first down.

Another snap. This time Williams hands off to Pierre Thomas who rushes for an 8-yard gain. Illinois ball on the Illinois 40.

Again McDonald snaps. Williams sucks the ball back and fires it across the 50 to Kyle Hudson. First down on the MSU 44, but the seconds still tick away.

Now steadily moving downfield, they repeat the play. Williams to Hudson, this time for 9 yards to the MSU 35.

Illinois calls a timeout to freeze the clock with 33 seconds to spend and 35 yards to cross. On the sidelines, long snapper Kyle Knezetic snaps to holder Frank Lenti. Lenti flips the football back to Knezetic, who fires it back to Lenti.

“I knew we had a chance to win a football game, right here,” Lenti said, “and it’s on the road, in a hostile environment.”

A few yards down, Williams is again getting instructions. Behind the bench, Reda winds up, knocking the football off the tee and squarely into the net.

Illinois’ offense heads back to the field, where Williams rushes for 4 yards then completes a pass to Hudson. Fourteen seconds left. Another Illinois timeout.

Reda winds up, feels confident with his form. A three-year starter, he’s been in this situation before.

He’s been asked to put the game-winning points on the board.

As a freshman facing Northwestern, he failed, and Illinois lost 21-28 in overtime. But now he’s a junior. Now he’s experienced.

“I was just thinking about getting the ball through the uprights,” Reda said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else but doing what I know how to do.”

The ball is on the MSU 23, and Thomas rushes for 1 yard. Illinois stops the clock with 10 seconds to go. That yard didn’t matter; Reda thinks he’ll land the field goal from wherever he needs to.

The Michigan State crowd gets louder, knowing this could be it.

For the Spartans, a second consecutive home loss would be crushing.

For the Illini, a coveted road win will be exhilarating.

The field goal unit steps on the field. The crowd gets louder. The players line up, Knezetic snaps, Lenti holds, Reda kicks and the ball sails through the uprights.

“I wasn’t really nervous as soon as I knelt down, caught the snap, felt like I had a good grip,” Lenti said. “We let things take care of themselves.”

With just six seconds left, Reda confidently boots a long and low “squib kick” to click the clock down to zero.

Illinois wins 23-20.

“This is a great football team here,” Williams said. “We’re the Fighting Illini, not the lay down Illini.”