Concentrated Juice, coaches look to pluck the Hawkeyes

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By Laura Hettiger

In October, Illini quarterback Juice Williams has been virtually unstoppable.

Facing four Big Ten teams, Williams helped the Illinois offense accumulate nearly 2,000 total yards, while the defense limited opponents to just fewer than 1,300 yards.

Even though the numbers look impressive, one problem remains: The team went 2-2 this month, suffering two heartbreaking losses – the first on Homecoming to Minnesota and then last week to a struggling Wisconsin team.

“Right now we’re average, .500,” head coach Ron Zook said at his weekly Big Ten press conference. “Now, I think all of us in here and the coaching staff included, think we could be better, but we’re not. Now, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to walk around and point fingers? Are we going to cry about it? Are we going to feel sorry for ourselves? No one feels sorry for us.”

Part of the reason no one feels sorry for the Illini is because the majority of their losses have resulted from their own mistakes. Currently 4-4, the 2008 team has lost as many games as last year’s magical Rose Bowl team did; however, there are still four regular-season games left to play.

When it comes to Illinois’ 27-17 loss to Wisconsin just six days ago, everyone on the team is taking the blame.

“We just made a lot of mistakes on offense; we just can’t get in the right groove throughout the game,” said true freshman Jason Ford. “We are just going to be more focused. The offensive line, receivers, quarterback, running backs – they’re all trying to get in the right groove so they can make things happen.”

The running back does not fault Williams but instead said the team beat itself and “everybody was kind of off” at Camp Randall.

Against Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana, Williams led the offense to 501, 550 and 563 total yards, respectively. However, against the Badgers, the Illini only turned in 309 total yards, with the Chicago native going 17-of-32 with three costly interceptions – two of which led to Wisconsin scores.

Even though gaining 221 yards through the air is an improvement from last season, the quarterback regressed against Wisconsin, making several errors en route to the loss.

“The last few games he didn’t turn the ball over, throw it to the other team,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said about his veteran quarterback. “For whatever reason this week, he had three careless interceptions; there were two that I would put on him. … As a quarterback, I’d like to see him throw a little more accurate ball, (and) the receiver stay on the ground and get two hands on the ball.”

Williams has gotten more comfortable using his arm instead of initially running the ball or handing the ball off to gain extra yardage. Without 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall, Williams has stepped up both as a leader and as the most seasoned ball carrier.

A new responsibility for Williams is keeping his young offense’s spirit up, making it buy into Zook’s “Believe” campaign.

“Just keeping guys up, letting guys know that we’re not a bad team,” Williams said. “We just gotta go out there and show on Saturday that we’re not a bad team. It’s going to take my leadership as well as the leadership of the other guys to keep guys motivated.”

Illinois’ offense has been strong all year, even with its mishaps at Wisconsin. To better prepare Williams for Iowa, Locksley has been showing him the game film against the Badgers so the junior can fix his mistakes.

This week has also been dedicated to studying Iowa’s defense and ensuring the offense has an idea what will be coming before the first ball is even snapped.

Zook and Locksley’s effective offensive coaching has made Illinois one of the hardest Big Ten teams to defend.

“These guys are very, very prolific right now, very talented, very veteran and led by a quarterback who has proven himself,” Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Their whole offensive team is going to be a great challenge, but certainly it starts at the quarterback. … It’s not just the passing game, either. They do a great job in the running game, excellent receivers, good backs; line is going a good job, so it’s quite a challenge.”

As Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff looms, the team knows a win is not squarely on Williams’ broad shoulders. History suggests when the quarterback has a good day, the Illini typically have a good day, too.