BLOOMINGTON, IND. — For the last five seasons, Illinois made more than enough marks in the school history books. The bad side of the books.
But with Saturday’s win at Indiana, the Illini are starting to balance those ledgers and the Ron Zook reclamation project continues to look better and better.
Here’s a sample of what Saturday’s win meant:
1. Illinois won its Big Ten opener for the first time since 1993. Had the Illini lost this one, they would have set the conference record for consecutive openers lost.
2. Together with last week’s win at Syracuse, Illinois won back-to-back weeks on the road for the first time since November 1999 (at Iowa and Ohio State).
3. Illinois’ 7 sacks were the team’s highest total in the 2000s. Backup DE Will Davis’ 4 sacks is one of the top three performances in school history — at least since they started tracking sacks. Only Simeon Rice, who had 5 against Washington State in 1994, posted more.
4. An Illinois defense hadn’t given up so few points in a Big Ten game since a 45-14 win over Indiana in 2002.
5. Illinois hasn’t won three games in a row since 2001, when the Kurt Kittner-led Big Ten champs won their last seven regular-season games.
6. Rashard Mendenhall’s 214-yard effort (sixth-best in school history) gave him the school’s first back-to-back-to-back 100-yard games since Rocky Harvey in 1999-2000. This might not sound like a huge deal, but Illinois has tracked 100-yard rushing games since 1945. Only two running backs (J.C. Caroline and school-record holder Robert Holcombe) have put together four consecutive 100-yard games.
7. Have you checked out Illinois’ running totals since Juice Williams became the starter? He has made 13 starts and the Illini have rushed for 200-plus yards in NINE of those. Illinois has put up 943 yards and 8 TDs on the ground in the last three weeks.
Mentioning Illinois’ rushing prowess — and giving Juice a healthy share of the credit — provides a jumping-off point to this week’s discussion about the passing game. Clearly, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be in order to be a Big Ten challenger. A conference opponent (Penn State?) is going to force the Illini to throw successfully in order to win.
It’s getting to the point where a good, solid completion — such as Juice’s pair of slant passes to Arrelious Benn at the close of the first half — are viewed as a pleasant surprise instead of a pass that the majority of college QBs would make with ease.
Head coach Ron Zook suggested Juice was victimized by a few early drops, while offensive coordinator Mike Locksley suggested Juice made some throws he never should have tried.
Anyway, let’s break down Juice’s day. All the attempts, since we’ve got a little time:
No. 1: On the game’s second play from scrimmage, Benn whips all-Big Ten corner Tracy Porter on a deep post. But Benn has to decelerate to wait for Juice’s underthrown lob and Porter picks it off. Should’ve been 6 points — or at least a gain deep into Indiana territory.
No. 2: Wide-receiver screen for Kyle Hudson nets 2 yards. Defended well by IU.
No. 3: Kyle Hudson gets open near the IU 10-yard line, but Juice throws it way too high. This one’s on Juice.
No. 4: Joe Morgan runs, if I recall correctly, a medium post on 3rd and 15. Juice’s throw is behind him and low. No chance for a catch, but at least Illinois doesn’t turn it over and Jason Reda boots a FG.
No. 5: Swing pass to Rashard Mendenhall gets 6 yards. Juice showed a fine touch the last two weeks on these passes.
No. 6: On a boot rollout, Juice throws way behind Morgan. His bad.
No. 7: If I recall correctly, this was a slant pass to Morgan that was slightly behind him, but he appeared to catch it and then drop it. The home fans wanted a fumble, but the officials ruled it incomplete. Morgan’s got to catch this, even though an on-target pass would have allowed him to run after the catch.
No. 8: Juice guns a fastball nowhere near Brian Gamble. Maybe he meant to throw it away deep in IU territory in order to preserve Reda’s 38-yard field goal, but I’m saying he just misfired.
TOTALS: 2 for 8, 8 yards, 1 INT.
No. 9: A 10-yard screen pass to Troy Pollard. Once again, a nice pass.
No. 10: A 4-yard bubble screen left to Rejus Benn. Keeps the chains moving for…
No. 11: Sitting on IU’s 2-yard line, Illinois brings in two tight ends and two fullbacks, gives a full-house look and Juice runs a perfect rollout and flips to uncovered TE Michael Hoomanawanui for his first career score. Well-done.
No. 12: With a defender draped on him, Juice somehow throws it away well downfield. Actually, it might have been too good of a throwaway because it could have been caught (or intercepted) because it was on the sideline instead of OB.
No. 13: A bubble screen right to Benn nets 6 yards. Solid.
No. 14: From Illinois’ 47, Juice throws a bomb toward Jacob Willis that lands harmlessly in the end zone. Not open, but not interceptable either. Probably stretched the defense.
No. 15: My notes aren’t good on this pass toward Morgan, which was apparently broken up by cornerback Leslie Majors.
No. 16: Here starts the best drive of Juice’s career. After Indiana’s TD cuts Illinois’ lead to 13-7, the Illini took over on their own 32 with 2:04 left in the half. Juice starts things with a 9-yard bubble screen to Benn.
No. 17: Benn lines up in the right slot, runs a medium slant and Juice finds him in front of the safety. A big league-looking play.
No. 18: Juice rifles a down-and-out to Will Judson for a 7-yard gain as he gets OB.
No. 19: This actually was an option play with Mendenhall, but Juice’s pitch went slightly forward so the statisticians had to call this 3-yard loss a pass. Mendenhall blamed himself for the handful of poor pitches during the game, saying he took a few incorrect arcs when Juice went “flat” with his path.
No. 20: On third-and-6, Benn runs the same route as three plays before for an 18-yard gain.
No. 21: Juice scrambles left. With nobody in front of him, he probably should have tucked and run, but he tried to hit Mendenhall near the 5-yard line, but he was standing OB when he caught it. Oops. But it didn’t matter because…
No. 22: This play made College Football Final shortly before Mendenhall earned a “helmet sticker” from Mark May. Juice throws a screen pass left to Mendenhall, who uses a kickout block from LT Xavier Fulton and a huge block at the 5 from LG Martin O’Donnell to scoot down the sideline for the 15-yard score with 44 seconds left in the half.
TOTALS: 10 for 14, 81 yards, 2 TDs.
No. 23: So much for building on the 2-minute drill. Nate Bussey recovers Vontae Davis’ blocked punt at IU’s 25 and Juice immediately goes to the air, but he can’t hook up with Morgan in the end zone. I wrote down “Throwaway?” because I couldn’t figure out the pass’ intent.
No. 24: This, for Juice’s sake, was an example of a young guy trying to make a play. On third-and-7 from IU’s 22, Juice feels pressure, steps up, JUMPS and fires a blah pass to the sideline that Tracy Porter picks off at the 11 and returns 22 yards. Costs Illinois 3 points and momentum.
No. 25: With Illinois pinned in its own end, Locksley decides to keep it on the ground. But on the sixth play of the drive, Juice rolls right, sees a wide-open Gamble about 20 yards down the field and doesn’t come close to connecting. Gamble had to dive just to get a finger on it.
No. 26: Juice showcases his arm with a cross-field rifle to Will Judson on the near sideline for a 9-yard gain. This will be his first and last completion of the second half.
No. 27: Working from IU’s 41, Joe Morgan somehow emerges uncovered from the pack and he’s heading toward the near sideline’s end zone. Juice uncorks a throw that goes off his fingers in a perfect storm of Illini passing issues. Juice made an easy throw hard…but Morgan left his feet to make it harder on his already inconsistent hands. Let’s just say I’m betting Benn or Gamble would have caught it.
No. 28: On third-and-8, Juice throws way too high for Willis.
TOTALS: 1 for 6, 9 yards, 1 INT.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run (for TD).
Run. Run. Run. Punt.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run (fumble).
Run. Run. Run. Punt.
Kneel. Kneel. Kneel.
GRAND TOTAL: If Juice merely converts the throws to open receivers that were his fault (at least in my estimation), he would’ve gone 20 for 28 with an additional 150 yards and 2 TDs.
But, hey, it’s college. And he’s still learning. And the dimension he brings to Illinois’ running game, particularly his option acumen, can’t be ignored. Whether the running production outweighs the production lost in the passing game, only Locksley and Zook can answer that.
Or, maybe the only answer necessary is this: Illinois is on a three-game winning streak and thinking about a bowl game.
Am I being too hard on the lad?