The best Illinois can hope for Saturday when Fresno State comes to town is a bittersweet ending to the career of one and perhaps two of the best athletes to play at Memorial Stadium.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The best Illinois can hope for Saturday when Fresno State comes to town is a bittersweet ending to the career of one and perhaps two of the best athletes to play at Memorial Stadium. The sweet would be a season-ending win over the Bulldogs. The bitter, win or lose, will be senior quarterback Juice Williams ending his up-and-down career at Illinois with a third losing season. He and junior receiver Arrelious Benn, expected by many to leave early for the NFL draft, came to Illinois in coach Ron Zook’s first and second years, respectively. They were big-time athletes recruited by big-name schools who took a chance on an Illinois resurgence. "I think when they came here it wasn’t necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that," Zook said of Williams and other players getting ready for the final games at Illinois. Their time in Champaign has included a big win, engineered in large part by Williams, over Ohio State that ended the Buckeyes’ dreams of an undefeated season and unexpectedly sent the Illini to the Rose Bowl. But it’s also included back-to-back losing seasons, including the current campaign that has Illinois (3-8, 2-6) near the bottom of the Big Ten. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Before the season, Illinois set up a Web site, 7-to-9.com, to make the most of the connection between Williams (No. 7) and Benn, who wears 9, track the gaudy numbers they were expected to put up and celebrate their achievements. Instead, both have been hurt this season and Williams was benched about the same time he set the school record for career offensive yards. Benn — whether through injury, tight coverage or something else — has just 39 catches, 429 yards and a single receiving touchdown. Even if Benn stays at Illinois, Fresno State is their last shot to put it all together. Benn is hoping for the kind of big day that’s eluded him all season. "That’ll be a real nice thing for me — get in the end zone, have a hundred yards, catch around eight balls," he said. Fresno State (7-4, 6-2 WAC) allows just shy of 200 yards passing and 25.6 points a game. The defense led by linebacker Ben Jacobs (82 tackles) has only picked off five passes this season and also give up more than 200 yards rushing per game. "They’re not going to give up many big plays," Zook said. "They’re going to keep the ball in front of them and try to knock you out. That’s how they play. They’re a tough, physical group of guys." Bulldog coach Pat Hill, whose team took Wisconsin to two overtimes before losing, doesn’t sound intimidated by Illinois. "The great thing about what these young men do is they play against some of the best teams in the country and some of the best people in the country," Hill said. "We’ve played high-level competition. We get to play against a lot of good people." Like Zook intended when he recruited Williams out of Chicago, much of what happens Saturday for the Illini — whether Benn has a big day, or the Illini rushing attack shows why its among the Big Ten’s best — is likely to start and finish with the quarterback. Williams and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, criticized for much of the season over the lack of punch in Illinois’ attack, showed signs in last week’s 49-36 loss to Cincinnati that they have finally started working well together. Williams threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 67 yards and a TD. Williams talked extensively with reporters this week about the highs and too-frequent lows of the past four years, his close relationship with Zook, what might happen after Saturday — he wants a shot in the NFL, at quarterback or elsewhere — and what he expects when he runs out onto the Memorial Stadium turf the last time. "Of course there’s going to be some emotional feelings here and there," he said. But Williams, whom Zook has praised for keeping his mouth shut when things went wrong and keeping himself in check when they went right, said he’ll do his best to treat Saturday like any other game. "I just try to attack it as if nothing has happened, just attack it like it’s my first college game," he said. "I’ve still got a game to go out there and try to win." Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.