Having handed the Northwestern Wildcats (4-2, 0-2 ) their most brutal defeat of the season, 35-6, on Saturday, the Wisconsin Badgers (4-2, 1-1) find themselves back in the AP Top 25 Poll this week - though just barely, slotted at number 25. For the Badgers to stay in the top-25 and possibly move up a couple of spots, they'll need a good showing in Champaign, Illinois against the Fighting Illini on Saturday. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) is coming off of a bye-week so they have had plenty of time to prepare for the Badgers.
With less time to prepare, here are three things the Badgers will be focusing on for their showdown with the Fighting Illini.
Six games into the season, Wisconsin finds itself ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in rushing yards, averaging an absurd 298.2 yards per game.
At the other end of the spectrum, Illinois allows 195.4 yards per game - ranking next-to-last in the Big Ten and 97th in the country. The Wisconsin rushing attack going up against Illinois' rush defense is about as David vs. Goliath as you can get - the Badgers just hope the comparisons stop there.
The Fighting Illini have allowed 66 (Southern Illinois), 148 (Cincinnati), and 155 (Miami (OH)) yards on the ground in their three VICTORIES this season. That's an average of 123 yards per game. In comparison, Wisconsin is allowing an average of just 58.5 yards per game on the ground in their four victories this season.
The statistics for the Illini in their losses are naturally much, much worse. In their loss to Washington, the Fighting Illini were torched by Bishop Sankey for 208 yards on 35 carries. Their Big Ten opener against Nebraska was one the Illini would love to forget as the Cornhuskers were able to rush for 335 yards, 225 of which were via the legs of Ameer Abdullah. Both Sankey and Abdullah recorded career highs in their meetings with the Illini.
It's not just James White and Melvin Gordon who should be licking their chops over this dream matchup for the Badgers, however, as Joel Stave and Jared Abbrederis ought to have themselves a field day going up against this Fighting Illini defense.
Illinois allows 27.6 points per game, ninth in the Big Ten, and gives up 449.8 yards per game, 11th in the Big Ten. They also have trouble stopping the big scoring play as Washington and Nebraska averaged a combined 22.67 yards per score in their victories over the Illini.
While Illinois has yet to allow a rush of more than 43 yards this season, that is sure to change as the Badgers lead the nation in plays of more than 50 yards.
Prolific offensive attack
Say all you want about the Illini defense, but boy can their offense play.
Averaging 36 points per game, the Fighting Illini have put up 42 or more points in three of their five games this season. Granted, the level of competition one sees from Southern Illinois, Cincinnati, and Miami (OH) is not great but is Illinois putting up 50 on Miami (OH) much worse than Wisconsin throwing 48 on Tennessee Tech?
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the most efficient starting QB in the Big Ten with a rating of 159.2 (Ohio State's backup QB, Kenny Guiton, holds a 168.1 efficiency rating). Scheelhaase and the Illini passing attack average 281.4 yards per game, third best in the conference, and the offense as a whole is the fifth best in the Big Ten as they average 457.2 yards per game.
This in-game matchup will be much more competitive than the Illini trying to stop the Badgers' backfield from rushing for 100 yards in the first quarter. Wisconsin owns the second best passing defense in the conference as the Badgers yield just 177.2 yards per game through the air to their opponents. The Badgers also have the fact that they haven't allowed the Fighting Illini to put up more than 17 points on them since 2007 going for them.
Sophomore running back Josh Ferguson leads the Fighting Illini in both rushing yards and receiving yards. The Naperville, Illinois product averages 62 yards per game on the ground and 68.8 through the air. While Donovonn Young has seen 12 more carries (61-49), Ferguson is averaging 6.3 yards per carry which is 1.9 more than Young's average of 4.9 yards.
Ferguson's receiving totals are not nearly as lopsided as Abbrederis', but he is without a doubt Scheelhaase's number one target. Ferguson ranks number two among all FBS running backs in receiving yardage with 344. The 5-foot-10 do-it-all running back led the team in all-purpose yards last season and is leading the Illini in that category so far this season. His three receiving touchdowns lead the team and his 20 receptions are also a team high.
Sojourn Shelton and the Badger secondary will have to be aware of Ferguson's location on the field at all times if they have any hope of slowing him down.
Not as uneven as one might think
Sure the Badgers have won seven of the last ten meetings with the Illini, and yes they have held them to 17 points or fewer in their three games since 2007, but history will show that Wisconsin and its fans should not take this game lightly.
Consider this: the Badgers are in the midst of a three game winning streak against the Illini for the sixth time in the 188-year history of this series but only once they have gone on to win four in a row.
That's right, Wisconsin is just 1-5 when going for a fourth straight victory against Illinois.
In fact, in the past two seasons, while the Badgers have won both meetings, their victories over the Fighting Illini have been by their smallest margins in Big Ten play for each respective season. This would have also been the case in 2008 had it not been for a thrilling 35-32 Badger victory over Minnesota that year.
The 2012 meeting between these two teams at Camp Randall saw the Badgers in dire need of a strong second half to put away the Illini as the two teams were tied 7-7 going into half, and they got one. Thanks to Montee Ball's two fourth quarter touchdowns, the Badgers were able to pull out the 31-14 victory.
The year before, 2011, was no different as the Badgers were actually trailing 17-7 at halftime in Champaign and had to again use a strong defensive second half to pull out the 28-17 victory. Montee Ball (1 rush, 1 reception) and Russell Wilson (1 rush, 1 pass) each had two second half touchdowns.
Wisconsin needs to keep the pressure on Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten if they are going to position themselves for a chance at the Rose Bowl or the playoffs. At this point in the season, there is no margin for error. The Badgers need the three hour and 52 minute drive back home from Champaign Saturday night to be a happy one.
More from Bucky's 5th Quarter:
- Week 8 college football: Game times, TV schedule, odds and more
- Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel expected to miss time with ankle injury
- Beatdown in Beantown: No. 7 Boston College blows out No. 2 Wisconsin, 9-2
- 5th Quarter Consensus: Wisconsin eyeing first road win
- Kyle French forgoing senior season
- Chris Borland -- yes, Chris Borland -- likely to be Wisconsin's long-distance kicker against Illinois