UNIVERSITY PARK - Amidst one of the most electrifying atmospheres in Penn State football history, it was the Nittany Lions' Williams - not the player with the same last name on the other team - who provided the juice.
And five games into his senior year, Derrick Williams finally had his coming out party.
Williams has had a very solid career at Penn State. But, in Saturday night's 38-24 win over No. 22 Illinois at Beaver Stadium, the one-time top-ranked recruit in the country finally had a game befitting that status.
Williams caught a touchdown and ran for another in the first half as the Nittany Lions, who so often turned to their defense to win big games, matched the Fighting Illini's offensive flurry and eventually exceeded it.
Then, he put the exclamation point on it, scooping up a squib kickoff to begin the fourth quarter and taking it back 94 yards for a touchdown to give Penn State a two-touchdown lead.
''It's great,'' Williams said. ''It wasn't me at all. My teammates always have my back. All I had to do when I got the ball was play with my natural-born talent.''
Williams ended up with 241 all-purpose yards to go with his three touchdowns.
''This is the first time he's really had a chance to break out,'' Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno said. ''We had to go without Norwood. Jordan aggravated a hamstring on Tuesday so we went into the game with the idea Derrick would have to do a little bit more. Not that the other kids couldn't do a good job, but Derrick's been in tough games, and he's made big plays.
''I told him the other day, 'It's about time you break out and have a real big one.'''
''He smiled,'' Paterno said.
Credited with helping revitalize Penn State football when he and Justin King enrolled in January of 2005, Williams' performance has always been graded on a tougher curve, and his destiny and that of the Nittany Lions as a team always have seemed to walk hand in hand.
In the last couple years, the knock has been they've been good, but not great. This year, in spite of the Lions dominance in their first four games, there were still questions, mostly centering around their competition, or lack thereof.
To be fair to Williams, there have been things that hampered his developing into the game-changer in college that were beyond his control. A promising freshman season was derailed by a broken arm against Michigan. In the two successive seasons, the offense built around drop-back passer Anthony Morelli didn't really play to Williams' strengths.
The one area where Williams has never been questioned, though, was in his leadership. Lion players to a man will say how hard he pushes everyone, both verbally and through the example of his work ethic.
On Saturday night, he ran with the ball, he caught the ball, he ran back the kicks and he even tried to get his teammates' spirits up on the sideline.
Maybe that explained why Penn State's offense was able to show the poise early in the game to match a couple of haymakers thrown by the Illini.
While the drive against Illinois that saved Penn State's undefeated 1994 season came at the end of the game, the one that kept the 2008 Nittany Lions perfect came at the beginning.
Penn State was on the verge of wasting the advantage provided by a raucous, near-record, sea-of-white crowd that had the pressbox swaying before the game. A.J. Wallace's tentative return of the opening kickoff stunted the enthusiasm, and Jeremy Boone's short punt gave the Illini great field position, which they parlayed into a quick touchdown.
Instead of buckling under, the Penn State offense answered right back with a 73-yard drive to tie it.
''Daryll [Clark] and A.Q. [Shipley] and some of the other captains did a great job of settling people down,'' Williams said.
In one stretch, the Lions made five straight first downs. The big play on the drive, though, was Daryll Clark's 8-yard pass over the middle to Graham Zug that converted a third-and-3.
Zug was playing because of Norwood's injury.
''Graham Zug did a great job when he got the got the opportunity,'' Williams said. ''Everybody stepped up.''
The destinies of the 2008 Penn State football team and Derrick Williams seem to walk hand in hand. Both entered Saturday night with their share of doubters.
Both wake this morning with significantly fewer of them.
''It just shows that we can fight,'' Williams said. ''But we've got to play week by week, play by play. Every opponent from here on is going to be tougher and tougher.''
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or email@example.com.