Mike Nadel: Will pressure of expectations squeeze Juice?

Mike Nadel

It's unfair to put the weight of the Illinois football program on the shoulders of a 20-year-old kid, unfair to say the Fighting Illini will go only as far as Juice Williams' strong right arm and fleet feet take them.

It's not fair ... but we'll do it anyway, won't we?

Such is life for the quarterback of any team at any level, let alone the QB of a ranked Big Ten team only nine months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance.

"This is my team," Williams had said. "This is my year."

His year began Saturday night with his team losing 52-42 to Missouri. The Tigers went into the season believing they would contend for the mythical national championship behind their star quarterback, Chase Daniel. And while Mizzou's goal remains intact, Illinois is 0-1 largely because Daniel's supporting cast was superior to Juice's.

Williams passed for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Could he have played better? Sure, but the Illini still wouldn't have won unless he could have made some tackles, covered Missouri's receivers and done something positive in the kicking game.

Come on, Juice, you can't play all 60 minutes? You're supposed to be good!

No doubt, the word "fluke" will be bandied about some in the wake of Saturday's game. Let's try not to go there yet, OK? Daniel and the Tigers can make any defense look bad. In fact, they did just that to Illinois in last year's opener, too, and the Illini recovered to have a pretty nice season.

It was pretty cool that Illinois-Missouri was the nation's Big One in Week One - and not just because the combatants are from neighboring states or because the programs recruit many of the same players or because organizers gave the game a clever nickname (they're calling it the Arch Rivalry, at least as long as it's played in St. Louis).

Coming off a 12-2 season in which the idiotic BCS system screwed them out of a major bowl game, the Tigers opened this year ranked No. 6 in the country. The Illini, a surprising 9-4 in 2007, were No. 20.

Pretty heady stuff for a couple of basketball schools.

Williams is in his third year in Ron Zook's program and his second as the starter. But it's his first as the quarterback of a team expected to excel, his first as the leader of an offense that isn't built around tailback Rashard Mendenhall. In 2007, Illinois' passing attack ranked 109th out of 119 major-college teams.

"We kept a lot of pressure off him in the last two years," Zook said a few weeks ago. "I said, 'Juice, it’s time for you to take it over.' It is his team. It is his offense. He's such a humble kid. He doesn’t want to be in the limelight. Sometimes you have to push him to be that."

In the days leading up to the opener, Williams was as curious as anybody to see what would happen: "We'll find out when we play Missouri ... where we stand as a passing unit."

Early on, his receivers couldn't stand tall enough to catch his inaccurate passes. The Illini's first possession ended when Williams airmailed one over 6-foot-2 Arrelious Benn. The next time Illinois had the ball, Williams missed Fred Sykes over the middle and then overthrew a wide-open Will Judson for what could have been a 95-yard touchdown play.

It seemed only a matter of time before tens of thousands of Missouri fans would begin chanting: "O-ver-ra-ted!"

Williams then showed why he's rated, zipping two perfect passes to Benn and then a 30-yard TD to a tightly covered Judson.

When Derek Walker picked off a pass by Daniel - actually, the defensive end couldn't have gotten out of the football's way if he had tried - and rumbled 34 yards for a touchdown, Illinois led 13-10. But Mizzou star Jeremy Maclin returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards and the momentum was returned to the efficient Daniel and his talented Tigers.

As is common for scrambling QBs, Williams occasionally hesitated while deciding whether to pass or run, and his indecision contributed to five sacks and a few broken plays. He did more than his share in overcoming those few negative moments with an amazing, 305-yard, four-TD second half.

If the Illinois defense even could have slowed down the Missouri offense a little, the result might have been different.

Juice Williams seems ready to take that next big step ... if only his fellow Illini will join him.

Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.