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Illinois needs another Horseshoe miracle to turn around season


It happened two years ago under the Ohio Stadium lights.

Quarterback Juice Williams and Illinois delivered a shock-the-world victory over No.1 Ohio State, signaling that the Illini, long an afterthought, were anything but. That season ended with a trip to the Rose Bowl, but the win over the Buckeyes was considered the breakthrough moment in the Ron Zook era.

Or so we thought.

The Illini crashed back to earth in 2008, going 5-7. Now, they head to Columbus as a team at a crossroads. The following week, Illinois plays host to Penn State. The two-game stretch will surely define the course of the season for 1-1 Illinois -- and calculate the temperature of Zook's seat.

Desperation, though, hasn't crept into the Illini locker room. "[Winning is] one of those things, like learning to ride a bike; you keep falling early but eventually you start riding and you keep it going," Williams said. "That's the type of attitude we want to take. When we get it started we won't want to stop."

Of course, getting it started hasn't been easy since that last trip to the Horseshoe.

The '07 run ended with a 32-point loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. Last season, the Illini failed to string together consecutive wins over FBS opponents, losing four of their last five, including the final three games. In the offseason New Mexico hired offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, one of Zook's top recruiters, as its coach.

This season didn't start off any better. Even with stars Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman having moved on to the NFL, Missouri hammered an Illinois team with eight returning offensive starters, 37-9. Adding injury to insult, all-Big Ten wide receiver Arrelious Benn injured his ankle three plays into the game. He returned a week later, just in time to see Williams get knocked out with a strained quadriceps in the first series of a 45?17 victory over Illinois State. Linebacker Martez Wilson was one of the few bright spots against Missouri, but he's out for the season after suffering a herniated disc in his neck.

The Illini emerged from the first two games with plenty of bumps and bruises, but they also emerged with this knowledge: America has yet to see what this offense can do. Benn and Williams, the team's biggest stars, have played just a handful of snaps together. Now both are healthy, and they're joined by running backs Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford (sprained ankles) and Mikel Leshoure (suspended for violating team rules).

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"That isn't what we are [offensively]," Benn said. "We're capable of putting up more points and doing more things, we just didn't have everything together and didn't execute the plays. A lot of guys are going to step up now and we're going to go out and execute, execute and display what type of offense we really are."

For all of Benn's talent, the offense goes as Williams goes. Last season he had a Michigan Stadium-record 431 total yards of offense against the Wolverines, 462 passing yards against Minnesota and 451 more against Mizzou. But the senior also leads all active players with 38 career interceptions.

Even those enamored with Williams' talents concede he hasn't developed as a quarterback. While he passed for 1,430 more yards in '08 than in '07, he also threw a career-high 18 interceptions, and his 57.5 completion percentage was virtually the same as the previous year..

To an extent, Williams has been a victim of circumstance. With running back Rashard Mendenhall having left early for the NFL and Benn emerging as an elite pass-catcher last season, Zook leaned on the passing game and asked Williams to shoulder the load. He responded by leading the Big Ten in yards (3,173) and touchdown passes (22).

"Since [the Rose Bowl] we've put more on him and asked him to do more and that changes a little bit," Zook said. "Not only has he done the things that we've asked as a player but he's done the things in a leadership role."

Still, the pressure has mounted for both Williams and Zook. The lackluster performance against Missouri and a win over an FCS team did little to quiet the critics, who suggest that last year, and not the Rose Bowl season, is most representative of the state of the program.

Zook parlayed the '07 season into an extension that is paying him more than $1.5 million a year, so it's unlikely the university will cut him loose, even if '09 proves as uneventful as '08. But a fourth losing season in five years would most certainly turn up the heat in 2010.

With games against Michigan State, Michigan, Cincinnati and Fresno State, the second half of the schedule will be no cakewalk. But first things first: The back-to-back meetings with Big Ten favorites Ohio State and Penn State could put Illinois at the bottom of the conference standings.

That could all change in the Horseshoe, back on the turf where Illinois seemed to turn the corner in '07. Now, like then, the Buckeyes are the heavy favorites, and the Illini are an afterthought in the game, and the conference race.

"[That] goes into your mind, but that has nothing to do with this year," Benn said. "We have to play that game like we always do, and we will."