The good play was just part of a wildly successful weekend for the Illinois football program. Friday night's annual barbecue drew a host of former players, including Dick Butkus and Simeon Rice, plus former quarterbacks Jeff George, Kurt Kittner and Jack Trudeau. George and Rice were the respective honorary captains for the offense and defense.
The weather also cooperated, with a fabulous clear sky and temperatures that climbed into the mid-to-high 70s. All of which added up to an announced crowd of 10,029, considered the most ever for an Illinois spring game by many long time followers.
But of all the good, none mattered as much as the play on the field. And perhaps the most scrutinized Illini football player in years – sophomore to be quarterback Juice Williams – at least for a day, answered his critics.
Albeit against the second team defense all day, Juice was as good as he's been in an Illinois uniform. He was 14 of 23 for 301 yards. He threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and calmly directed the offense. And he didn't even come close to making a mistake.
"Locks (offensive coordinator Mike Locksley) has really done a good job with him," Zook told me after the game. "And he has really gotten better. He will continue to get better. But you can see him doing quarterback things – looking off the safety, stepping up into the pocket, the right things."
It was just a week ago that many were criticizing his accuracy and were concerned about his development. But this looked like a completely different player. Maybe the most impressive part is that he had a huge game with a non-contact jersey on, which negates his best attribute, the ability to take off and run.
"So far, that's been what he does best," Zook said. "And in a situation like this, he can't do it."
Juice also was helped immensely by the arrival of true freshman to be Rejus Benn, who showed the throng of fans what coaches and those who have attended practice have seen since the day workouts began – that this guy is a marvelous playmaker who will change the fortunes of the Illinois passing game.
Been caught five passes for 145 yards, scored on a long run, and showed the kind of grace, athleticism and speed you just don't get from a 6-2, 215 pounder. He got deep once for a 64-yard catch. He speared a rocket out of the air for a 35-yarder, a ball that receivers dropped a year ago. And he took a big hit and hung on near midfield for a 31-yard game.
And he had everyone in the building buzzing about number nine.
"Honestly, that's what we thought we were getting," Zook said. "How good is he? And you know what's even better – he's an ever better person."
I said, "Maybe as good. Tough to be better."
Zook said: "Better."
The first team defense also had its moments, stifling almost everything the backup offense – led by redshirt freshman quarterback to be Eddie McGee – tried. The highlight was Chris Duvalt's 86-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Walter Mendenhall, subbing for his injured brother Rashard, led all rushers with seven carries for 48 yards.
"It was a good day all around," Zook said. "We got better this spring. We really pushed them, this was a hard spring. And they responded."