Illinois has done a lot of soul searching this week. The players and coaches are not happy about their poor start to the 2009 season. In particular, they are at a loss to understand the failure of the offense, which was supposed to be a team strength.
Numerous fans have called for a change at quarterback. Juice Williams has been in a slump and has continued to throw interceptions. But Williams is considered the quarterback with the best chance to lead the Illini to victories, so he will continue to be the starter. Center Eric Block knows him well, and he explains why Williams is their quarterback.
"Juice is a leader. He grabbed the team after the game and had things to say. You know, just fix what's wrong. Once we get that going, we've got the potential to be a great team. We need to step up and do it.
"We see Juice every day in practice, and he's a great player. He's got all the tools. The things that happen on the field, a receiver doesn't run a right route or the offensive line doesn't give him enough time. It's a team effort, it's not on one guy. We've got all the confidence in the world in Juice. We see every day in practice the kind of work ethic he has. I've got a strong faith in Juice.
"I talk to Juice all the time. A center/quarterback is always a close relationship. It's pretty personal. He's fine. He's coming to work. He's gonna fix whatever he's got to fix, and the offensive line is gonna fix what we've got to fix. We're ready to get back on the field against Penn State."
If the team could vote on who it wanted to lead the offense, would Williams be the one the players want most to follow?
"Absolutely, without a doubt. Juice is the emotional leader of the team. We all have got a lot of faith in him. We all know what he can do. We all believe in Juice as our quarterback. There's no doubt in my mind we'd vote him as our quarterback."
Williams is certainly bothered by the lack of offensive productivity.
"As a team, you kind of get disturbed by it. There's gonna be things that go bad that you don't particularly like, myself included. That's part of football. But more disturbing than anything is the way we are playing does not really show the caliber of this team. We know that, the people that are closest to the team."
Williams benefitted from reviewing the Ohio State game film.
"Right after the game, I was kind of lost. It was like a nightmare. But after watching the film, it was not that bad. It's little small things that's been nagging at us the entire season that we've got to clean up. We can't really wait and say things are gonna get better. It needs to happen now, and that's the position we're taking."
Williams is now in his fourth year as a starter, but he hasn't been playing like it. He is pushing hard, maybe too hard, to play his best ball his final season.
"It's always important. It was important to me as a freshman to come out here and dedicate myself to sending the seniors on their way in a way they would always remember. Now to me being a senior, it's more of a hurried experience.
"We're looking to get things done right now, especially for the senior class. It's not disappointing because we still have a long season ahead of us. It's mind-boggling, and it makes you wonder a little bit. But it makes you push much harder.
"I'm not lacking confidence or doubting the team because I know it's there. But we've got to bring it out on Saturdays. We can't do it all week long and then come out on Saturdays and give it away. We've got to take care of business and get back on track, play ball like we're capable of playing, and try to put ourselves in position to win games."
A senior with four years experience should understand the quarterback position backwards and forwards. But it is also true that defenses have learned better how to defend him. Have defenses figured him out?
"Each week it varies. They pick their areas what they want to do. When we had Rashard (Mendenhall), they tried to limit him and make me make plays. Right now, it's pretty much opposite. Teams are looking to eliminate my play-making ability and allow someone else to beat them. But it varies, every team is different. So it depends on the d-coordinator."
The offensive line has been inconsistent, and it has been guilty of several untimely penalties. Right guard Jon Asamoah says it's different problems at different times.
"We don't know where the backs are going sometimes. False starts require more concentration. Things like that. We've just got to clean it up. We've just got to keep getting better."
Asamoah played on the offensive line in 2007 that was highly efficient and made few mistakes. What is the difference between then and now?
"I've been asking that question myself. I called Martin (O'Donnell) and all them from back then and asked what's going on. We're in a funk now. We've just got to keep fighting until we snap out of it."
Block says there has been renewed intensity in practice this week.
"Coach made clear that all spots are on the line. No one in particular, but all spots are open. That's a motivating tool for all those already starting, and it's a motivating tool for those who aren't. The intensity in practice definitely picked up.
"We want to get back on the field as fast as possible. After a loss, you can't wait to get to the next game. And really, you've got to put it behind you. That's what Sundays are for. You watch film, you spend time with it and check out what you need to do. But then Monday, everything is all Penn State."
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is another senior who wants to showcase his talents for the NFL. He was the intended target on a play in the Missouri game where Williams tripped retreating from center. And he was to be the recipient on the Williams pass that was tipped and intercepted by OSU defensive end Lawrence Wilson. Success or failure is determined in a split second.
"Yeah, it's frustrating, but I'm not the only guy on the field. I've just got to move on to the next play. It was a little delay route. One second earlier or one second later, he doesn't get his hands on it. Things happen like that, it's just unfortunate."
It is possible some Illini remember the problems from late last year and early this year. When things go badly, they feel snakebit and tighten up or let down their intensity. Hoomanawanui tries not to let the past affect the present.
"I play every play to my best ability and move onto the next one. That's how people have got to think. Things aren't going our way right now, but everything happens for a reason. Hopefully, we can get out of this hole we have dug ourselves into. It's a long season, and we've still got plenty of games left."
The defense was far from perfect, but it had its good moments. At least, they were emotionally intense against OSU.
"We definitely were," defensive tackle Josh Brent agrees. "We were going against the 11th team in the nation, so you're gonna be fired up regardless. We played with a lot of emotion because of who we were playing and the rivalry."
Despite some mistakes, Brent feels the Illinois defense is improving.
"I think we did very well. That first half was just about as good as we can play, given some of the situations. It could have been better, but it was definitely great. I think we're progressing pretty well. We played well, but there are still some things to correct.
"I think it was definitely a confidence boost, going back and looking at the film. Fans are gonna critique. That's their job, it comes with the territory. So you expect it, especially with a loss like that. You always have some fair-weather fans who are gonna get down on you. They may not know what's going on down on the field."
Brent believes the Illini can still have a successful season.
"We know what we're capable of, what type of team we have. And we've got 9 more ball games ahead of us. That's a lot of games to get better. We're losing early, and we're learning early. If people look at our defense from first game until now, they can see the improvement.
"And the same thing for our offense. Even though they didn't score, the Ohio State defense is one of the best in the Big 10. So you're gonna have your ups and downs. You're not gonna win every battle. Looking defensively, we definitely got better."
Defensive end Clay Nurse agrees with Brent's assessment.
"I think we gained some confidence. When you look at the film, especially on the d-line, we were in the backfield, we were pushing the linemen back, we were getting off our blocks and trying to make plays. Obviously, we weren't there to make the play on a couple long runs they got. But from a physical standpoint, I think we gained some confidence."
Head coach Ron Zook singled out Nurse for his inspired play at Ohio State. That helps his personal confidence. Of course, he also had an unfortunate face mask penalty while trying to tackle Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor for a loss, and that led to a second quarter touchdown.
"I feel a little bit more confidence, just knowing Coach has got my back during good plays and bad plays. I didn't realize I had gotten the penalty. I was hoping the referees didn't see it. But Coach didn't go off on me. He just said to come back to neutral, get back in the game and make some more plays. That's all I tried to do."
Safety Donsay Hardeman wasn't satisfied. He is determined to see more improvement in the weeks ahead.
"The defense played an okay game. I wouldn't call it great because we ended up giving up 30 points. We still had some mistakes, and we still have to get some things corrected. We had a couple 3-and-outs, and those add up. We felt pretty good, but it wasn't to our best potential."
Hardeman bristles at those who think the Illini program is on a decline.
"I still do think this program is going in the right direction. We have some good recruits this year, and we had some good recruits last year. Just cause we're not winning ball games doesn't mean the program is not good. Coach Zook is a good coach. He don't teach you to be good but great."
Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory is reluctant to praise his defense prematurely.
"We obviously still have a long way to go. We've got to get better each week. We've got 9 games to go, and we have to keep improving day by day.
"We've got to keep improving on our tackling, that's the most obvious. We're stressing it each and every day. Guys are working on the little things, and that's what we've got to continue to do."
At least, he was pleased with the energy and focus the Illini defense showed at the Horseshoe.
"Absolutely. Whenever you start the Big 10 conference, the excitement level goes up. We came out excited and ready to go, and we have to have that same energy this weekend."
Illinois practiced hard this week. In fact, numerous players stayed after practice to continue working on their own. In particular, much of the offense stayed on the field working on pass routes and timing. And several offensive linemen continued repping pass blocking until dark. Whether they win or not Saturday, they are certainly taking the task seriously.