Things just seem to get more interesting around the Fighting Illini football program. Just 2 days after losing to Penn State, Coach Ron Zook benched starting quarterback Juice Williams in favor of junior Eddie McGee for this Saturday's contest against Michigan State (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). Williams, who set the Illinois record for total offense in the loss to the Nittany Lions, has struggled to find open receivers in their three losses. The lone victory over Illinois State was led by McGee, who stepped in for Williams after the first play in which Juice got hurt. But bear in mind, this bunch of Spartans are much more talented than the Redbirds that visited last month, so McGee may find the road a lot more difficult this time around. As Zook stated in his weekly press conference on Tuesday, this is not just about Juice and the way he has played. Sometimes it takes a shake up to get things going in the right direction. That is all fine and well, but how about some of the other positions? Maybe it's just not who is running the offense, but the system itself. When Mike Locksley was in charge of the offense before his departure to New Mexico, things seemed to run okay. Locksley did have his critics, but his replacement, Mike Schultz, seems to be running something entirely different. Gone are the looks downfield to the talented corps of receivers. We all know what Arrelious Benn can do, so why not let him show his skills? Jarred Fayson has proven that he needs work on catching balls, but when he does, he looks as fast as anyone on the field. Schultz said at the beginning of the season that the offense wouldn't be much different than they ran last year, but I am beginning to believe that is not the case. Is it time to push the panic button yet? According to Zook, the answer is no. He thinks there still is enough time left for the Illini to turn the season around. With the tough part of the schedule nearly done, the opportunity presents itself in the next few weeks to stockpile some wins together. That can begin as soon as this weekend, but it will take more of an effort across the board to make that happen. Could there be a possibility of seeing Juice somewhere else on the field Saturday? Zook wouldn't totally dismiss the idea, only saying he wouldn't be on the offensive line or somewhere like that. McGee has been used as receiver in certain sets before, so if Juice can catch a pass, who knows? Everyone already knows that he can run, so that is something to think about too. Maybe he can teach Fayson or some of the other receivers who have developed butterfingers a thing or two.
It was a good weekend for former Illini players that have taken their game to the next level. Rashard Mendenhall had a great game for the Steelers, scoring 2 touchdowns and breaking the century mark in rushing yards. Vontae Davis, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, returned an interception for a touchdown, the first of his career. It's always nice to see former players excelling in the NFL, but it begs the question of why can't the current players get their act together? After all, playing on Sunday is the ultimate goal of many of these athletes.
Michigan State is a hard team to figure out this year. Coming into their matchup against the Illini on Saturday, the Spartans are 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, and riding an emotional high after upsetting Michigan 26-20 last Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. They employ a dual quarterback system, with Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol sharing duties. The tandem combined for 303 total yards against the Wolverines with Cousins getting the bulk of the work. The Spartans have beaten the Illini 9 out of the last 10 times, with the Illini last winning at home way back in 1992.
The Illini women's volleyball team split a pair of matches last weekend, dropping a heartbreaking contest at #23 Michigan State on Friday night, before rebounding on Saturday night to down Michigan. The Illini couldn't finish off the Spartans, even though they had 3 match points in the fourth set. The momentum shifted, and the Spartans came away with the victory. The Illini are 10-3 overall and 2-2 in conference matches with Purdue and Indiana coming into town this weekend to do battle. The Illini women's soccer team had a tough road stretch last weekend, and finished with a 0-1-1 record. On Friday night, the Illini dropped a 1-0 decision to #12 Purdue, only the second time that they have been shut out this season. On Sunday, the Illini managed to tie the Hoosiers 1-1, as they went to double overtime against Indiana before ending in the deadlock. The Illini 5-4-3 overall on the season, with a Big Ten mark of 0-1-2. The Illini host Wisconsin on Sunday at the soccer stadium on campus. Match time is set for 1:00 pm.