Miller: The Juice is worth the squeezing

When you are playing for a team that is tied for the worst record in your conference a change needs to be made. For Illinois, change can only mean good. They named true freshman Juice Williams the full-time starter earlier than expected. He will face his toughest challenge of the season on Saturday against Wisconsin. BN's Jason Miller looks inside the huddle and the numbers.

THE JUICE IS LOOSE

Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook said in his weekly press conference on Tuesday that his team is improving. "We believe in these guys," the Illini head man stated. "We are asking these guys to play, maybe earlier than expected. But we would not play him (Juice Williams) if we did not think he could get the job done." Juice was let loose as the full-time starter in the Iowa game on September 23. He has gone through many growing pains, and that day encapsulates both the ability and frustration this future All-Big Ten performer possesses. He finished completing just nine passes in 32 attempts for 161 yards, three interceptions, and one touchdown. Juice had two touchdowns dropped. He also ran for 40 yards. In the week prior to that against Syracuse, he threw for 227 yards in three quarters of relief duty. His progress has been steady and mature. In a win at East Lansing, Michigan, he showed poised and comfort in the moment as he led the Illini to a 23-20 victory.

In that game, he did his best Tiger Woods "Hello, World" impression. Williams ran for 103 yards on 17 carries. He also completed nine of 16 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Not bad for a guy who is five months removed from graduating high school.

SHAUGHNESSY THE 'BELL COW' OF BADGER D?

Those are not my words, they are Ron Zook's. "That defense is playing very well, very sound." Zook says. "Number 92 is probably the bell cow of the defense if there is one. He is a big player...and they are a very sound, very well coached football team. I hope Matt hears that he was just compared to a farm animal. Perhaps that is good bulletin board comedy for him.

THE BUS IS PARKED IN TEXAS? At 7-1 (4-1), the Badgers are already qualified to play in a post-season bowl game. You have got to believe that officials from the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Insight Bowl in Phoenix, and Alamo Bowl in San Antonio are on the hook right now. However, with a Wisconsin win on Saturday, it all but assures a return trip to Florida for a New Year's Day bowl game. Even if the Badgers were to lose the Penn State, Iowa, and Buffalo, which is highly unlikely, representatives from the Outback Bowl and the city of Tampa would be salivating. They realize the money that Cardinal and White faithful would bring to Channelside, Ybor City, and other attractions would be tough to pass up. But with Penn State being at home, and the status of Iowa QB Drew Tate in question for the November 11 game at Iowa City, I will go on record as saying that Tampa officials had better call someone else. Orlando anyone? OK, I am getting ahead of myself. We have a 1-0 mentality around here, and I will respect that.

ILLINOIS OFFENSE vs. WISCONSIN DEFENSE

When you start your drive on your own 24 yard line each time (average for the season), it is pretty obvious that you can guess a team will have a below average win-loss record. Such is the case for the Fighting Illini. The bright spot for Illinois has been the rushing game. Having a dual threat QB usually bolsters that statistic. They currently rank second in the conference in rushing offense at 189.5 yards. Wisconsin's defense is only giving up 114.6 yards per contest. Thanks to the new found refreshment, the Illini stat is bloated a bit. RB Pierre Thomas leads the team with 522 yards on the season, or 65.3 per game. He is backed up by sophomore Rashard Mendenhall. A 2005 HS All-American, Mendenhall has collected 444 yards (55.5 per game) on the ground. His versatility should not go unnoticed, having grabbed 11 balls for 151 yards also. Williams has gained 311 yards on the season, and that includes the 157 yards he has lost on QB sacks.

Through the air, the Illini have been quite dismal. With a freshman QB, that is to be expected. The team averages a little more than 40 yards over what the Badger defense allows (176.6 to 131.1) per game. They have not been very efficient, either. Wisconsin leads the conference in pass efficiency defense at 84.6, which is lower than what the Illini are averaging each week. One more stat of note: Wisconsin has given up 116 first downs - all season. The Illini have only collected 146. Ouch.

Key Match-Up

Badger LB's against Juice/RB's. The Illini offensive line is opening holes up for the rushing game, that is for certain. Wisconsin LB Mark Zalewski is a run-stop specialist that is up for any challenge. Along with his LB mates, this will be a good challenge for the team. If Thomas and Mendenhall get loose a few times, it could be a bigger challenge than expected because that opens up QB draws and sprint options for the Juice. However, I think the young QB is going to buckle in front of 84,000 strong at Camp Randall. The Badger defense will make sure that the Juice is worth squeezing. In the future, Williams might be trouble. But not on Saturday.

ILLINI DEFENSE vs. BADGER OFFENSE

The Illinois defense is not that bad. Each opponent is starting on the 37 yard line. For a young defense hoping to establish something, that is bad news. Yes, the only ranked opponent they have played during Big Ten season is Iowa (who is now unranked). But stats don't lie. If it were not for Wisconsin, the Fighting Zookers would lead the conference in pass defense. They are only giving up a shade over 170.5 yards per game, compared to the 202 yards the Badgers are gaining. That statistic is a bit jaded because of one PJ Hill, but could be a tell-tale none the less. As for Hill, the big truck just keeps moving along. He has gained 1172 yards on the season, 147 each week. His 13 TD on the ground lead the BT as well. PJ is 6th and 4th, respectfully, in those two categories at the national level. Illinois is giving up just under 130 rushing yards per game. Look for Hill to run down the Orange and Blue this weekend.

QB John Stocco is as efficient as they come. If it were not for some guy named Smith, he would be the leading candidate for 1st team All-BT. He has 12 TD against 3 INT on the season. Those are senior leader statistics. He is not Juice Williams. Stocco is a classic throwback style signal caller that will beat you if you give him time in the pocket. His offensive line has given him just that and the statistics prove it. On average, in drop back pass situations, JS has been given 3.2 seconds to throw the ball. Ask any QB and they will tell you that you can go through your reads, twice, in that amount of time. With Travis Beckum bursting onto the the scene of late, having time to go through progressions means a lot more than it did in the San Diego State game.

Key Match-Up

Illinois d-line vs. Wisconsin o-line. Illinois does not give up a lot in the through the air. However, they have not faced a team that runs the ball like Wisconsin. If the Badgers can get the same early success on the ground as they have in every other game sans Michigan, it will be a long day for the Zook fan club. PJ Hill will get his 150 yards+ and two TD. That opens up play action, unless the d-line can get pressure on the gaps and slow down the big running man just a little bit. No one else has except the number one rushing defense in the country, so what will change that this week? Not much.

QUOTABLE - RON ZOOK

"There is no doubt in our minds we are going to get there. They are giving us all they got. We are going to get over the hump and where we need to be. There is improvement, just compare last year to this year. We have to keep pressing, moving, and driving. I told them when we recruit them you will not be treated like freshman. It is on me to get us over the hump."

On the Badgers

"We are going to play another very good, good football team. It gives us another chance to prove ourselves. They are a good team. They took Michigan into the final five minutes and that game could have gone either way. Offensively, they are a well coached football team. They do exactly what their players can do. They put players in places to succeed. The quarterback is playing very well. He is extremely accurate and poised. The running back has put himself in the upper echelon of this conference and nationally. On defense, they are very sound. They play hard and on third down will get into a man-free defense that is tough to beat. Number 92 is the bell cow if the is one. They are just a good football team."

PREDICTION

Here is what I said in August (READ HERE):

"Nevermind that Illinois returns over 80 percent of their starters from the 2005 season, because that squad went 2-9. Head Coach Ron Zook will be in his sophomore season for the Illini. "We could be one of the better teams around, I think," said Zook in Chicago. This is the same coach who, while coaching Florida at the Outback Bowl in 2002, referred to Lou Groza Award winner Nate Kaeding of Iowa as "one heckuva running back". OK, back to the task at hand. Illinois returns their QB in Tim Brasic (1979-11-11) and the three-headed running back core of Pierre Thomas (689), EB Halsey (370), and former HS All-American Rashard Mendenhall (226). But, like I said, nevermind who they return - this is going to be a very ugly game."

Well, it is October and I am not going to change much. Juice Williams replaces Brasic to give them a nice dual threat behind center. However, time has not shown me anything that will erase the memories of my original feelings. The score stays the same, too.WISCONSIN 38, Fighting Zookers 14.


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