CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - It is not a power problem or a squashed citrus issue, but the Buckeyes start the day preoccupied with Juice. It's not about electrical current or the vitamin-packed drink, but the Illinois quarterback.
Juice Williams was called Isiah John at birth, when his excessive weight of 13 pounds and eight ounces was nearly fatal. Since then, the now 6-3, 235 pound Williams has developed into one dangerous athlete on the football field.
Juice is the source of many of Ohio State's concerns as the Buckeyes prepare to face Illinois here today in a critical Big Ten game. It's all about Juice.
"For me, the quarterback that adds the problems is the one that can pull it down and run with it," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "And that, to me, is why Juice - he's just another dimension."
Williams leads the Big Ten in passing and in total offense. He is throwing for just under 300 yards per game and has the Illini averaging 447.6 yards per game. The net result is Williams has Illinois second in the conference in scoring, at 31.4 points per game.
Tressel and the Buckeyes have already seen plenty of Williams, a junior who has started since his freshman season. Two years ago Williams and the Illini gave unbeaten Ohio State and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith a good scare here before the Buckeyes won 17-10.
Last year, Williams led Illinois to a 28-21 upset win over the then-No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in Columbus - a loss that ended Ohio State's 20-game Big Ten winning streak. He passed for four touchdowns and rushed for 70 yards on 16 carries.
The original book on Williams was he had very happy feet and was quick to ditch the pocket and tuck the ball and run. His size and athleticism always made him a tough tackle in the open field. But Tressel said Williams has matured into a very effective passer.
"I think he's throwing the ball extremely well," Tressel said. "I think he's come a long way in his two and three quarters years and has not lost that ability to run. We haven't faced anyone like him, so it will be a good challenge."
Ohio State's fans, players, and coaches remember well what Juice and company did inside Ohio Stadium a year ago. The Illini got the lead, and then refused to give the ball back, consuming the clock with a late drive that Williams engineered. He ran for three critical first downs as Illinois held the ball for the final eight-plus minutes.
"Last year, we couldn't stop him," Ohio State defensive back Malcolm Jenkins said. "There were a whole bunch of short-yardage situations and third downs when we couldn't get him down. We just gave them too many big plays and couldn't really overcome them."
The Buckeyes bring the Big Ten's No. 2 defense here to confront Williams. Ohio State has been holding its opponents to just under 270 total yards per game. Senior linebacker James Laurinaitis said he expects Williams to test that unit, since the Chicago native has developed into one of the best.
"Oh, he's gotten better," Laurinaitis said about Williams, who comes from the same Chicago high school that produced Illinois legend and NFL great Dick Butkus.
"He's a big play guy, and he's grown so much as a player and leader for that team. He just looks like a complete quarterback. He's a great thrower and a great runner, and that's why he is such a big threat to us."
Laurinaitis said the Buckeyes move into today's game knowing they got new life in the Big Ten title race after Iowa upset previously unbeaten Penn State last week. That makes today's game with Illinois and next week's matchup with rival Michigan essentially championship games in the conference. If the Buckeyes win both, they are guaranteed no worse that a share of a fourth straight Big Ten title.
"We always say we'll play for what we can control," Laurinaitis said. "You just have to keep battling because anything can happen."
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