Illinois Fighting Illini Back at Square One with Two Quarterbacks

Tim CarySenior Analyst IOctober 14, 2009

CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 10: Juice Williams #7 of the Illinois Fighting Illini throws a pass against the Michigan State Spartans on October 10, 2009 at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. Michigan State defeated Illinois 24-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.—Illinois football coach Ron Zook isn't ready to say who will start at quarterback for his team when they travel to Bloomington Saturday night to face the Indiana Hoosiers.

Sure, that makes sense. 

Zook benched the school's career leader in total offense, looking for a spark for his disappointing football team, and the backup, junior Eddie McGee, responded by completing a grand total of two passes in 11 attempts against Michigan State.

The only touchdown McGee threw was to the wrong team, as the Spartans' Danny Fortener broke perfectly on a ball well behind the intended receiver and waltzed into the end zone untouched.

I realize Juice Williams hasn't had a great year, but how is that an improvement?

After going down 24-0 to the Spartans in the third quarter, the Illini coaching staff pulled the plug on the Eddie McGee experiment, reinserting Williams into the lineup. 

The knee-jerk reaction to McGee's repeated off-target throws came at least two series too late (as the home team never recovered from the pick-six), and left fans to wonder what might have been if the team's senior leader had gone all 60 minutes against MSU.

Wait, what was that?  It wasn't a knee-jerk reaction?

"Believe it or not, contrary to what people think, everything we do is very well thought out," an obviously frustrated offensive coordinator Mike Schultz said after the Illini's third straight loss.

Um, okay.

Williams is obviously the better of the two options, as he was at least able to get the Illini offense on the scoreboard against the Spartans. 

Juice led two late scoring drives to make the final score respectable, and I have no idea what McGee did in his 31-yard masterpiece of a game to give Zook and company serious thoughts about sending him onto the field at Indiana Saturday.

But not a lot makes sense in Illinois these days.

Williams, to his credit, remained politically correct after the latest loss when discussing the play of his good friend and quarterback competitor.

"Eddie's a great player; Eddie can get the job done," said Williams.  "I can't sit here and say I would have done better or led us to victory."

All right, Juice, allow me. 

Juice Williams would have done better than McGee's 2-of-11 performance against Michigan State.  He wouldn't have been overwhelmed by the Spartans' rush, he wouldn't have thrown passes in different zip codes from wide-open receivers, and he would have given the Illini a chance to win the game.

With a majority of the season still to go, Williams deserves the chance to finish what he's started and try to turn things around for the Illini.  And for what it's worth, he still believes in his team.

"We've got seven more games at least, we want to go out there and try to win all of them," Williams told reporters.

"We can't let the past dictate what we do in the future."

Sounds like advice his head coach would be wise to heed. 

Ron Zook, we forgive you for an ill-advised decision to sit one of the best players in school history and look to your backup quarterback for a spark.

It didn't work.

Let's move on.  End the quarterback controversy now.

Zook characterized his signal-callers' strengths as experience (Williams) and passion (McGee).

I'm going to go out on a limb and say "experience" directly leads to a higher winning percentage than raw emotion, and if Zook wants to be coaching in 2010, he needs a better winning percentage pronto.

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if Zook accurately comprehends his predicament and the obvious disparity between his options at quarterback.

"It's not as easy as everybody thinks: musical chairs. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination done with Eddie, or done with Juice," said Zook.

Oh boy.

Zook even hinted at the possibility of using both quarterbacks in Bloomington.

"Whoever takes the first snap, I don't think that's quite as important.  The offense doesn't change, and our football team is very, very comfortable with whoever's at the quarterback spot," said Zook.

Personally, I beg to differ with the idea that "the offense doesn't change."  While it's true that the scheme is comparable with both McGee and Williams under center (and to be fair, that's probably what the coach was referring to), the execution was anything but similar in Saturday's showcase. 

Williams threw a touchdown to an Illini receiver, while McGee was picked off for a touchdown by the Spartans.  McGee completed 18 percent of his passes, while Juice threw for over 100 yards off the bench.

The urgency of Zook's upcoming decision has everything to with the Illini schedule.  Winnable games at Indiana and Purdue the next two weekends have the potential to turn the Illinois season around, maybe even to the extent of building enough momentum and making the progress necessary to reach six wins, earn a bowl berth, and save Zook's job.

While Cincinnati still looms, thanks to a quirky schedule which includes two post-Thanksgiving non-conference games, it's not all that far-fetched (at least on paper with the talent on the Illinois roster) to see Juice, Arrelious Benn, and their big-play offensive potential post wins over the Hoosiers, Boilermakers, Golden Gophers, Wildcats, and Fresno State.

So how will this quarterback battle ultimately play out?  Will the coaching staff compare statistics?  Hold a competition?  Flip a coin?

"I'm judging them more on just a gut feel," Zook told reporters today.

I have no idea why Illinois fans are losing faith in their coach. 

Bottom line, at least McGee understands the priorities in Champaign.  When asked if he was eager to get another shot at starting, he quickly responded, "I'm just eager to get a win."

To this humble writer...that sounds like a recipe for Juice.