By DAVID MERCER
Associated Press Writer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - On a Saturday night in mid-September, the 19-year-old face of Ron Zook's plan to rebuild Illinois football was pouting.
The Illini had just beaten Western Illinois 20-0. The shutout was nice against an overmatched opponent, but the offense was sluggish and quarterback Juice Williams was a ho-hum 12-for-24 for 123 yards and no TDs.
``I was pretty down on myself, walking around by myself, alone, being quiet,'' Williams said this week. ``It was kind of selfish on my part.''
Two months later, Williams' star has never shone brighter.
Williams turned in the game of his life last Saturday in the Illini's 28-21 stunner over No. 1 Ohio State. He was 12-for-22 for 140 yards and four touchdowns passes and ran for 70 yards on 16 carries. When Illinois was trying to seal its first victory over a top-ranked team since 1956, Williams ran for three key first downs and the Illini kept the ball for the final 8:09.
``I always wanted to get this team turned around,'' Williams said, ``but I didn't expect (it to be so fast).''
He's not alone.
Williams, whose given name is Isiah, came to Illinois in 2006 from Chicago Vocational, the same South Side high school that produced Illini Hall of Famer Dick Butkus.
Williams was Zook's first big-name recruit with Illinois, the first sign the master recruiter might be able to convince talented kids to spend four years at a school that hadn't had a winning season since 2001.
Williams was a rarity: a top-notch Chicago prospect who chose Illinois over Notre Dame or any of several dozen other top football programs around the country.
At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he was compared to Michael Vick - a big, fast, athletic quarterback who could beat teams with his feet or his arm
No pressure, kid.
Williams played in every game as a freshman, starting most of them.
But he struggled, completing less than 40 percent of his passes and throwing as many interceptions - nine - as touchdowns.
The Illini finished 2-10.
Zook has consistently defended his young quarterback. Before this season started, he pointed out to anyone who would listen that Williams' passing stats were weighed down by a lot of dropped balls.
The high-energy coach also regularly reminded reporters and boosters that Williams was still just a kid.
``People might have forgotten, gosh, he's only a sophomore,'' Zook said.
Williams is a run-first quarterback. He's Illinois' second-leading rusher, behind tailback Rashard Mendenhall, with 638 yards on 127 carries. Most of the quarterback's yards are the product of the option Illinois frequently runs out of its no-huddle, spread offense.
Williams and Zook say the quarterback has matured and is more likely to wait for a receiver to come open, but Williams is still only 10th rated passer in the Big Ten. He has completed 56 percent of his passes for a modest 1,278 yards - 116 a game - 12 TDs and nine interceptions.
Zook has pulled Williams several times this season, benching him when he struggled in favor of redshirt freshman Eddie McGee.
The strategy worked against Penn State and Wisconsin, with McGee running the ball on key plays that either sealed or led to wins.
The two quarterbacks have said they're good friends and insisted there's no quarterback controversy. Williams has called McGee his relief pitcher.
Williams, however, hasn't been benched the past three weeks, and in each game he's gotten a little better, looked a more comfortable in the pocket, and thrown better passes.
``That's the Juice that we see at practice every day,'' senior offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell said. ``We know that he has the ability to make those plays.''
Williams says he's seeing the game in a way he's never seen it before, focusing on his receivers more than the seven or eight defenders coming at him.
``The game is really starting to slow down for me,'' he said. ``I'm extremely confident right now throwing the football around.''
Two weeks ago, in a 44-17 win over last-place Minnesota, Williams had what was to that point the best game of his career. He was 14-of-21 passing for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and ran the ball for another 133 yards and another TD.
Then came Saturday in Columbus.
The four touchdown passes - to four different receivers and none to favorite target Arrelious Benn, who left the game with a concussion - were impressive.
But it was only a warm up for the last drive.
With just under 7 minutes to play, the Illini were up 28-21 and faced a fourth-and-inches at their own 33.
With Illinois lined up to punt, Buckeye coach Jim Tressel called a timeout, giving Williams a chance to lobby Zook for a change of plans. Some teammates say that, under the circumstances, Williams is the only player who could have talked Zook into what was a huge gamble.
``I said, 'Coach, you don't think we can get a half an inch?''' Williams said after the game. ``He said, 'If you don't get it, I'll hurt you.''
He didn't have to.
Williams got the first down on a sneak. Ohio State never touched the ball again.
``He's a tough guy,'' Zook said. ``In my opinion, if he has a fault, he tries too hard sometimes. He was gonna' get that first down, no matter what.''
Williams has been low-key this week about the play, the win and what it all meant to a program that for decades has known more bad than good.
``It kind of feels like my high school days again,'' he said. ``A lot of times I'd just walk through the hallways and get congratulations from fellow classmates and teachers, and even the principal sometimes.''
Source: ncaafootball.com; Photo Credit: University of Illinois