Buckeyes hope to squeeze Illini's Juice

Wednesday, November 1st 2006, 3:29 am
By: News On 6

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) When Jim Tressel was recruiting Isiah "Juice'' Williams to come to Ohio State a couple of years ago, he knew the athletic quarterback had a lot of potential.

Now, Tressel and his top-ranked Buckeyes will find out just how big of an upside the freshman has when he leads Illinois against Ohio State on Saturday.

"They're a big-play team,'' Tressel said of the Illini (2-7, 1-4 Big Ten). "Juice Williams has got four touchdowns over 60 yards throwing the ball and he does a great job with his feet as well. He's a guy we recruited very hard. He can make things happen.''

Williams had the size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) that marked him as a star during his prep days at Vocational High School in Chicago, where he passed for 1,841 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior, while also rushing for 1,441 yards and 17 more scores.

The Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) already had a quarterback who could elude onrushing tacklers and then throw deep over a defense in Troy Smith, a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Williams was offered a scholarship by Ohio State in his junior year. He considered coming to Columbus as an understudy to Smith.

"Looking back, I saw an incredible football history and tradition and the opportunity to play with Troy Smith was remarkable,'' Williams said. "Just knowing that Ohio State had one of the better quarterbacks in the country, it was a great situation to be in.''

Williams passed it up to stay in his home state and play for the Illini. He said he wanted to learn by playing, not by standing around on the sidelines and watching someone else.

"Most people say that you make progress being out there on the field and learn from game experience instead of sitting back and watching someone play in front of you,'' he said.

Coach Ron Zook, a former Ohio State assistant under John Cooper, installed Williams as the starter when Illinois played Iowa. He had an awful day, completing just 9 of 32 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions.

A week later, however, Williams showed some of that potential by running for 103 yards on 17 carries and hitting on 9 of 16 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown with one interception in what at the time was a huge upset of Michigan State.

Since then, the young Illini have lost four in a row. There have been growing pains as Williams has gradually become more comfortable at his position.

He'll face his toughest test yet against a Buckeyes defense that is the stingiest in the nation, allowing just 7.3 points a game.

Asked what jumped out at him about Illinois' offense when he looked at game film, Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman pinpointed one player.

"I'm just going to say Juice Williams,'' he said. "Everything revolves around him. He's a playmaker. He keeps plays alive with his feet.''

Tressel knew that Williams would be a fast learner.

"He really enjoyed studying the game. He loved to compete,'' Tressel said. "He obviously had a good arm and great athletic ability and he just looked like a guy that, man, this guy's going to become something, and he has.''

Williams is completing just 42.6 % of his passes, with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has run for 364 yards as the Illini try to turn things around after going just 13-41 since the start of the 2002 season. The Buckeyes are 52-8 over that same span.

"Being a starter and going up against the No. 1 team in the country was far from my mind at this time last year,'' Williams said. "I look at it as just another game against a good team.''