Mike Nadel: Juice loses, both in game and afterward
About two minutes after Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said his quarterback "has to be a stand-up guy and say, 'I didn't play my best,'" a team spokesperson said Juice Williams was taking a pass on explaining his erratic, three-interception performance.
Hey, at least there's one pass that wasn't picked off in Saturday's 27-17 loss to Wisconsin.
It's not my style to scold a college athlete who isn't even old enough to swill beer legally, but come on! If you're willing to address the media (and, by extension, the fans) after throwing for 310 yards at Michigan and after tossing three touchdown passes against Indiana, you also should be willing to account for a stinker.
Besides, no words I write here are as biting as those Ron Zook used a half-hour after the game. The coach threw his QB under the bus and threatened to step on the gas.
"You know, he had a couple big games and then he didn't play very well," Zook said. Raising his voice, he added: "You can't throw three picks and be a good quarterback!"
Two of the interceptions came on horrible passes intended for Fred Sykes, who was open on both plays.
"You know, he's a great person ... and he's gonna be a great player," Zook said of Williams. "But until we can get consistency there, we've got some issues."
Here's where we point out that Juice hardly was the only "issue" Saturday.
In falling to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini committed numerous brain-dead penalties. They also repeatedly blew defensive assignments, making Wisconsin quarterback Dustin Sherer look like the second coming of Brooks Bollinger.
"Young guys are gonna make mistakes, but I'm tired of seeing older guys make them," Zook said. "And, by golly, we're gonna look at that real, real close and see if we've got to make some changes. They're gonna be held accountable."
Once again, merely discussing his team's shortcomings raised Zook's hackles - and his decibel level: "It's not the way it was before we got here! Illinois, if we wanna be the kind of program that we wanna be, guys are gonna have to bow up!"
See, this is dark side of having one winning season. You start thinking you've arrived when, in fact, you're still thumbing for a ride. You believe you're better than you are.
You get a taste - as the Fighting Illini did last season, when they capped a nine-win season with a Rose Bowl bid - and you naturally want more. So when more is replaced by less, when a team that was supposed to improve regresses instead, frustration sets in.
While Zook is telling his guys to bow up, by golly, he might want to hold himself accountable, too. After all, he had just been out-coached by Bret Bielema, who had come under fire as his Badgers followed a 3-0 start with four straight losses. Two weeks earlier, Zook's team was flat in a humiliating homecoming loss to Minnesota.
Yes, there was plenty of blame to go around Saturday. Still, as always, the QB is a focal point.
"Quarterbacks get the praise but, unfortunately, they also have to take on the responsibilities of losses," Locksley said. "That's part of the maturation process."
Thing is, Williams isn't a kid. He turns 21 in a few weeks and he's been starting games for three years now. He was a major reason for the Illini's dramatic improvement last year. He went into Saturday's game as the Big Ten leader in total offense and was ranked 10th nationally in passing efficiency.
In his previous three games, he passed for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns, with only one interception.
And now? "Back to the drawing board," said his offensive coordinator.
When I said that seemed drastic, Locksley responded: "Maybe it's drastic to you. To me, it's a matter of getting my quarterback fixed."
Wow. One week after helping Illinois score 55 points in beating Indiana, Juice Williams needs fixing.
"We've got to get him to see (his mistakes) on tape and get them corrected," Locksley said. "Because how he goes, we'll go. He's 'The Guy' in our offense."
Indeed, Juice is the face of the entire program now. Declining to show that face when the tough questions were being asked, well, that's no way to be a leader.
Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.