For Illini stars, season starts now

2009-09-21T22:55:00Z For Illini stars, season starts nowBy Mark Tupper mark.tupper@lee.net pantagraph.com
September 21, 2009 10:55 pm  • 

CHAMPAIGN - As the most visible members of the University of Illinois football team, Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn spent the summer working hard and dreaming big. But since the season arrived, those dreams have mostly been nightmares.

Benn watched most of the opener on a TV in the trainer's room at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, having suffered a sprained ankle on the third play of the game. Instead of catching passes, he waited on results of his X-rays.

Benn quickly recovered and was on the field for the start of the second game against Illinois State. But on Illinois' first play from scrimmage, Williams went down with a strained quadriceps muscle. That ended Williams' game and once again the Illini was without Benn and Williams on the field together.

So when Illinois travels to Ohio State on Saturday, Illinois' prime time throwing and pass catching tandem is looking at it as a new start, a delayed beginning to what they hope can still be a memorable final season together.

"We're saying the season starts Sept. 26th," Benn said. "… We really haven't had a chance to play. We want to work hard this week, work extra after practice and get some rhythm going and prepare for Ohio State, which is a great team."

Williams and Benn's statistics two games into the season are an eye-opener.

Williams has thrown just 28 passes and does not have a touchdown pass. Benn has one reception for nine yards.

"We're thinking about this like it's week one," Benn said Monday. "Forget about Illinois State. Forget about Missouri. We're 0-0 right now getting ready to start Big Ten play, and that's going to be tough because we're going into a hostile environment but we have to get it done."

Each player has been on the field so little it's tough to make a judgment on their performance this season. Williams heads to Columbus, Ohio, needing 171 yards rushing or passing to become the school's all-time total offense leader, surpassing Kurt Kittner's total of 8,880 yards.

And although he tried not to linger on it when pressed on the subject Monday, it was in Columbus in 2007 that Williams rose up and played a game that still defines his Illini career. He was unstoppable running the ball in an eight-minute, clock-eating drive that allowed Illinois to complete its 28-21 victory that upset the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes.

"It was a great time in the history of Illinois' program, but that was two years ago, two different teams, two different attitudes going into that stadium," Williams said. "Now it's going to take everything we have to pull one out this time."

Williams looks back on that keep-away drive as a nervous but necessary push that prevented the Buckeyes from getting the ball back and possibly mounting a game-changing rally.

"Every time we pulled off a third-down conversion it was a sigh of relief," Williams said. "I remember that drive. It was very nerve-wracking not being sure of what to expect. But I got more and more confident and thank God I was able to run out the clock.

Both players said last weekend's open date allowed them extra time to heal their injuries.

"I actually feel pretty good," Williams said. "The additional days couldn't have come at a better time for me personally. I'll be ready to go."

Benn said he is looking forward to moving beyond the ankle sprain.

"The week off has given me a chance to get 100 percent healthy and prepare for Ohio State," he said.

As a tandem, the preparation has been a long time in the making.

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