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November 14, 2007
In Champaign, Ill., Juice Williams is again the toast of the town.
Classmates are asking for his autograph. Teachers are saying congratulations. Williams hasn't been this popular for his football achievements since his days in high school in Chicago.
It has been even longer since Illinois could praise one of its own for their football accomplishments.
That changed this week, thanks to Williams.
When Illinois upset No. 1 Ohio State 28-21 on Saturday, it was the Illini's first win over a top-ranked team since 1956. And by winning its eighth game of the season, Illinois has won as many games as it did in the previous four seasons combined.
The victory also was a breakout day for Williams, whose maturation in his second year as a starter has helped turn Illinois from a two-win team to an eight-win team with a possibility of reaching double-digit victories this season.
Williams passed for 140 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 70 against Ohio State, earning him Rivals.com National Player of the Week along with adoration around campus when the Illini returned from Columbus.
"It kind of felt like my high school days, getting congratulations from classmates and teachers and principals sometime," Williams said. "It's pretty much the same now, classmates walking up and saying congratulations and asking for autographs."
His teammates, though, could have seen this coming.
Williams was brilliant against lowly Minnesota a week earlier with 207 passing yards and 133 rushing yards after showing flashes of his potential all season. By the time of his 20th career start, the sophomore was ready to blossom on a national stage.
"That's the Juice we see at practice every day," guard Martin O'Donnell said. "We know he has ability to make those plays and he will make those plays. ? He got thrown in there last year as a true freshman at 18 years old. He's 19 now. It's just part of the growing process. He's got a lot of experience under his belt. It's paying dividends for him and for us."
Named Illinois' starting quarterback four games into his true freshman season, Williams struggled in 2006, completing fewer than 40 percent of his passes while throwing nine interceptions.
He wasn't so sharp early this season, either, as Illinois used backup quarterback Eddie McGee at times. The low point came in the second game. Though Illinois defeated Division I-AA Western Illinois 21-0, Williams was not pleased with his effort, going 12-of-24 for 123 yards and an interception.
"I was really down on myself," Williams said. "I was walking around by myself and being quiet even after a victory. It was kind of selfish on my part because there's more to the game than personal success."
It probably didn't help that Williams started to look over his shoulder while McGee started taking snaps, particularly in a 10-6 loss to Iowa. With Illinois struggling to move the ball, McGee replaced Williams in the final quarter of the loss.
Over the next few weeks, though, Williams rediscovered his confidence, which seemed to grow from week to week.
"I'm extremely confident right now throwing the football," he said. "I was able to hit some guys in stride a few weeks back and that bleeds over."
As his production in practice and on the field increased, he took over a leadership role. Though he won't turn 20 until after the regular season, Williams was comfortable taking charge.
"He's a natural leader," O'Donnell said. "I kind of rolled up earlier in the game and I was limping around and he's saying some words of encouragement. That's the kind of stuff that's great to hear ? a guy that shows that much leadership on the offense."
Though Williams' performance against Ohio State didn't catch teammates off-guard, Illinois' rapid ascent has surprised even Williams.
After winning only 13 games since 2002, Illinois will make its first bowl trip since going to the Sugar Bowl after the 2001 season.
"I always wanted to get this team turned around," Williams said. "But I didn't expect the things that are going on now to come this quickly, but we knew we could do it."
OTHER NOMINEES FOR PLAYER OF THE WEEK:
QB Pat White, West Virginia
TB Chauncey Washington, USC
QB Joe Ganz, Nebraska
QB Tim Tebow, Florida