Today should have been Juice’s Last Stand.
No, I’m not talking about the latest fledgling fruit drink franchise to be crushed by the heartless corporate shell Orange Julius. I mean Juice Williams, the embattled senior quarterback for the Fighting Illini football team. Juice has been the poster boy for an Illini season that started so promising, and now conjures up what Illini fans hoped were long-forgotten nightmares of Tepper and Turner.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook made the call early this week: Junior backup Eddie McGee would make his first career start under center, against the Michigan State Spartans and their evil, racist mascot Sparty.
This was the wrong call for a number of reasons. First of all, Illinois finally gets to play a mediocre opponent at home. Sure, the Illini and Juice have looked terrible in their three losses. But for a moment, consider the opponents: Missouri, Ohio State, and Penn State. All three of those teams are currently ranked. Ohio State and Penn State are both in the top 15. Only one of those games – last week’s 35-17 disappointment against the Nittany Lions – has been in the somewhat friendly, renovated confines of Memorial Stadium.
Michigan State came into today’s game sporting a less-than-stellar record of 2-3, with one of those victories coming against woeful Montana State.
Illinois came in at 1-3, but this was easily the most winnable game they’ve played so far outside of Illinois State. And what does the Zooker decide to do? He lets a kid make his first start ever at quarterback, rarely a recipe for success.
We at Grubb Hub have long been defenders of Juice Williams, probably to a fault. We have felt that he suffers from what we call “Dee Brown Syndrome”. In laymen’s terms, this is a psychological condition that afflicts many Illini fans when their men’s basketball or football team actually lands a highly sought after, nationally prominent recruit.
Much like Dee Brown before him, no matter what Juice Williams does, it’s never good enough. For example, Juice took over a program in shambles and helped (along with Rashard Mendenhall) lead the Illini to their first Rose Bowl since 1984. He’s the school’s all-time leader in total offense.
You don’t become the all-time leader in anything unless you’ve had a few good games here and there, and Juice has had his share of monsters.
But Juice, despite a rocket arm and powerful legs, certainly has his flaws. He’s not the most precise passer. He too often misses wide open receivers. Of course, he has not gotten a lot of help this season. The Illini offense – supposed to be one of the more explosive in the country – cannot seem to do anything right.
The only fun thing about watching Illinois this season is, when they actually gain more than ten yards on a play, you get a chance to guess what the penalty was.
So in steps Eddie McGee. The Juice-haters finally got their wish. And what a big difference it made, didn’t it?
Illinois was trailing 17-0 in the third quarter when McGee finally threw a touchdown pass. Unfortunately, it was to Spartan cornerback Danny Fortener.
Just as we at Grubb Hub suspected, the Illini’s problems run far deeper than at quarterback.
Then, in a true reversal of roles, Juice came into relieve a beleaguered McGee, and the Illini outscored Michigan State 14-0 the rest of the way.
That’s why this game should have been Juice’s Last Stand. Zook should have let him have this one, final chance to prove that he could keep things competitive against a team like Michigan State, a mediocre opponent, playing at home.
If the result had been the same as was against Penn State or Missouri, then go ahead and bench Juice and play McGee or whoever the rest of the season because it doesn’t matter.
The worst part is, we’ll never know for certain if the Illini got whipped today because they are just that terrible, or because McGee was like many quarterbacks making their first career start – shaky. Certainly, Juice could have done better than 2-for-11 for 31 yards and an interception. Oh right, he did in the second half.
A win against the Spartans today would have improved the Illini’s record to 2-3. The schedule lightens up considerably, with games upcoming against beatable opponents in Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern. It only takes six wins to become bowl eligible. You do the math. The season was not over. Now it is.