Last week, there was so much to talk about.
Entering Wisconsin-Nebraska II, we had last year to (at least on our end) gloriously look back on. We had the ramifications for the Badgers, considering what a win would do for them after the crappy non-conference season. You had Tyler Martinez "skipping rocks," David Gilbert paying for those comments and those horrific uniforms to kick around.
But for Illinois, all that looking back to last year does is deliver memories of a miserable offense -- minus Montee Ball -- and a near-loss on a gloomy day in Champaign, Ill. But Wisconsin ultimately overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit as Ball provided perhaps his truest workhorse-like performance: 38 carries, 224 yards, two touchdowns on the ground and another through the air.
To break down this week, we reached out to the great Illinois blog, A Lion Eye. Robert was kind enough to give his thoughts on Saturday afternoon's game at Camp Randall.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Illini fans feeling about the season thus far? What's gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Sunday's game?
Robert: What's gone right? The second quarter of the Louisiana Tech game was AWESOME. We, like, held them without any points or something. What's gone wrong? Everything else. We did win our opener over Western Michigan quite handily, but since that point, it's been completely downhill. A blowout loss to Arizona State (by 31). A home win over a high school team (Charleston Southern, an FCS school on a 15 game losing streak), and then destoyed at home by Louisiana Tech (by four touchdowns) and then destroyed at home by Penn State (by four touchdowns). It's been nothing short of a disaster.
How do I expect it to translate to Saturday's game? I guess there's a slight chance we regroup this week and realize that 9 turnovers and one takeaway over the last two games is not the way to win football games. Maybe we realize that you guys are vulnerable for the first time since 2008 and we turn it around. Or maybe we can't smell any blood in the water because of our own vomit.
2. B5Q: How has Illinois' offense functioned so far this season? I see it managed only seven points against Penn State last week.
Robert: About the same as the second half of last year. Over the final seven games last year, we averaged 11 points per game. So the offensive struggles haven't really been a surprise to Illini fans. I think they were expected.
We lost our one playmaking receiver (AJ Jenkins, a first round pick by the 49ers), we lost two solid offensive linemen, and we switched from a pro-set with some pistol to a shotgun spread. AND our only two experienced offensive linemen are injured. Graham Pocic (three year starter) returned for the Penn State game (playing right tackle for the first time in his career), and Hugh Thornton (four year starter) will hopefully be back this week. Without them, we're three sophomores, a freshman, and a junior with three career starts.
You might see that we were inside the 10 three times against Penn State and came away with zero points and scratch your head; Illini fans just give each other knowing nods. THIS... is Illinois Football.
3. B5Q: And the defense? Not trying to troll here, but the Illini have surrendered the most points (139) in the conference.
Troll? No, kind sir, you are not trolling. We're just a disaster right now. That defense has four or five guys who will likely play in the NFL. They were the seventh best defense in the country last year. Sure, we lost Whitney Mercilus' 16 sacks. But from our bowl game, we returned three of four defensive linemen, two of three linebackers, and the entire secondary. All of that returning... and we've surrendered the most points in the conference. I can't believe it either.
I will toss out the injury excuse. This is the most banged-up Illini team I can remember in 25 years. Against Louisiana Tech, we were missing eight starters. Nobody can win with eight starters out. Well, most people can beat Louisiana Tech with eight starters out, but THIS... is Illinois Football.
4. B5Q: I was at last year's game in Champaign, where the Badgers overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to pull out a 28-17 win. Montee Ball rushed 38 times for 224 yards, and because of that tremendous workload in a game where Wisconsin's offense was otherwise ineffective, I thought it was a key factor in his Heisman candidacy. Is it fair to expect another grind-it-out affair at Camp Randall on Saturday?
Robert: My favorite stat from the game last year. Wisconsin points on drives that started in Wisconsin territory: 0. Wisconsin points on drives that started in Illinois territory: 28. Final score, 28-17. We led that game 17-7 at the half and then gifted you three drives in our own territory. Because THIS...
I don't expect the same thing in this game. We gave up 100 yards rushing to Penn State's second string tailback. I can't see how Ball doesn't run all over us. I know you guys have had your issues, but our issues >>>> your issues. After the Arizona State loss I questioned if this defense could still pull it together. After Louisiana Tech put up 50+ I tried to play the "once we get into the Big Ten we'll straighten this out once we see more traditional offenses. After Penn State scored 35 points against an FBS opponent for the first time since November 2010, well, I gave up. There are no levers left to pull.
5. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
Robert: I'll just list where I think we have an advantage:
*sits for five minutes, trying to come up with something*
Seriously, I can't. I know you guys have had your struggles, but after watching our first five games, I can't think of any phase of the game where I could say we have an advantage. Maybe QB? Scheelhaase has much more experience than Stave, and O'Brien hasn't been a fit for you guys (yet). But the only real strengths for this team so far (running the ball with the speedy Josh Ferguson and the powerful Donovonn Young) is usurped by Montee Ball. And on defense... WAIT. Ashante Williams has been fantastic for us. He plays this hybrid saftey/linebacker position we call "star". And he's been solid in all phases. So THERE. Our hybrid linebacker/safety is better than any hybrid linebacker/safety you guys can throw at us.
6. B5Q: Is it safe to expect a sizable contingent of Illini fans in Madison this weekend?
I doubt you'll see many. I'd guess smallest contingent of traveling fans you see this year. I'll attempt to explain the mindset of the Illini Football fan right now.
Mike White and John Mackovic got us rolling in the 1980's. We were ranked as high as 5th in 1990, and we beat eventual National Champion Colorado at home. Mackovic left for Texas in 1991, and the fall began. Lou Tepper took us two a few bowls with Mackovic's players, but by 1996 we were in the midst of an 18 game losing streak. Ron Turner built us up to a BCS Bowl in 2001... but we finished 1-11 two years later. Ron Zook built us up to the Rose Bowl in 2007... but we finished 3-9 two years later. That season, 2009, broke this fanbase. NFL talent galore, and 3-9.
Fans started to kinda sorta pay attention when Zook was fired and Beckman was hired, but after three blowout losses in five games, I believe they've tuned out again. And who can blame them? We lost 18 games in a row in the late 90's. We went 2-30 in the Big Ten from 2003 to 2006. It feels like we're peering over the cliff, staring at that again. And it has us all in the fetal position.
Sure, there are diehards who will show up to road games. And God bless 'em for it. But I doubt you'll see many.
7. B5Q: Do you have a prediction?
Robert: I'd say Wisconsin by 20 or so. Despite my negativity (it felt really good to get all of this out), I do think we'll have a little turnaround at the end of this season. Defense comes together in the new scheme, we get some of our injured players back, the schedule opens up with home games against Indiana and Minnesota and Purdue, and we start to understand the new offensive scheme. But I fear these next two games before the bye week (at Wisconsin, at Michigan) will be U G L Y.