Illinois QB change reflects desperate situation

October, 5, 2009
10/05/09
12:06
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Illinois faced fourth-and-inches from its own 33-yard line, clinging to a 28-21 lead over top-ranked Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.
 
  AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
  After 38 consecutive starts, Ilinois quarterback Juice Williams has been benched.
Juice Williams knew he could move the chains, so he made a convincing plea to Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook, who put his faith in the sophomore quarterback. Williams lunged for the first down and drained the clock as Illinois stunned Ohio State. It would be the defining moment for both Williams and Zook at Illinois, as the team went onto the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Less than two years later, Williams can no longer convince Zook that he should remain on the field. After watching his quarterback struggle for three games, Zook announced Monday morning that junior Eddie McGee will replace Williams as the team's starter.

McGee will make his first career start Saturday against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, noon ET). Though he has made 19 career appearances, Williams has started the last 38 consecutive games for Illinois at quarterback.

“Believe me, this is not all on Juice,” Zook said Monday his radio show. "The poor guy has at times played extremely well, but the thing you try to do in athletics is you’re trying to get a spark.

"This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is a lot of thought and what-if, what-if, what-if. But the bottom line is we're in a part of our schedule now where we’ve got to go play."

Zook said Sunday that changes were possible at every position, including quarterback, but the move to bench Williams is still somewhat surprising. It's not every day that you see a four-year starter and the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback get relegated to clipboard duty.

Williams has struggled mightily this season, ranking last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown, but he also boasts amazing career numbers. He was Zook's first major recruit at Illinois, and his close relationship with the head coach has been well documented. Plus, there's a lot of debate about whether the offensive scheme under new coordinator Mike Schultz is the bigger problem in Champaign.

Even as the pressure mounts on both Zook and Williams, it seemed like the coach and the quarterback would sink or swim together.

Zook's decision simply emphasizes the obvious, that these are desperate times for him and the Illini program. If things don't get turned around fast, Illinois is headed for its fourth losing season in Zook's five years as coach. The momentum from the Rose Bowl run in 2007 has all but vanished, and despite a one-year contract extension this summer, Zook finds himself very much on the hot seat.

He puts his faith in McGee, the Big Ten's most experienced backup. McGee led Illinois to its lone win this season Sept. 12 against Illinois State after Williams went down with a thigh injury. The junior from Washington D.C. has provided a spark in the past, most notably against Missouri in 2007, and Zook is looking for the same thing on Saturday.

If Williams remains on the bench, he'll end one of the more unusual careers in recent Big Ten history. Last week he became Illinois' record-holder in career total offense, and in 2008 he set total offense records in three separate stadiums, including Michigan Stadium.

But you know what they say about desperate times.

Zook made a move that might save the season or seal his fate.

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