The Wisconsin Badgers return home on Saturday after an embarrassing 20-14 road loss at the hands of Northwestern. The loss dropped the Badgers to 0-1 in Big Ten play, making it even more prudent for the offense to show some signs of life this week against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
The Illini are lead by third-year head coach Tim Beckman. Prior to accepting the Illinois coaching job in 2011, Beckman served as the head coach at Toledo for three years. There, Beckman led the Rockets to a 21-16 overall record in his three years at the program, including a berth in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2010 and the Military Bowl in 2011.
So far at Illinois, Beckman has been unsuccessful in carrying over his success. In 2012, the Illini went winless in Big Ten play, finishing the year at 2-10. Last season, the Illini improved their records, going 4-8 overall but still struggling in conference play at 1-7. This season, they've have already lost their first two conference games, so Beckman's team will be looking to change that this week as they travel to Madison to take on the Badgers.
As the Badgers prepare for a potential rebound performance back at home, here are four key things you should know about the Illini.
They're worse than their record
While Illinois enters this week 3-3 on, that 0-2 Big Ten mark in conference play is what really describes the quality of this team. After coming up with some uninspiring wins over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky in the first two weeks (winning by a combined 19 points), the Illini walked into Washington in Week 3 and promptly walked out after being blown out 44-19. They followed that weak performance up with a less-than-inspiring performance against Sun Belt school Texas State, a game in which Illinois needed to overcome a 21-6 second-quarter deficit to win 42-35.
The Illini's first two conference games went as expected: Nebraska crushed them 45-14 (despite wearing these uniforms), and that was followed by another loss, this time 38-27 at home to Purdue -- the same Purdue team that lost to Central Michigan earlier this year.
The Purdue game is particularly important to Wisconsin in that Illinois gave up 349 rushing yards and 7.8 yards per carry to a team that managed only 122 yards and 3.6 YPC against the powerhouse Chippewas of Central Michigan. Despite throwing only 20 passes, Purdue managed to score 38 points against Illinois.
That touchdown run by Purdue's Akeem Hunt defined Illinois' defense from last week. Purdue's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, Illinois's linebackers were out of position (that's No. 52 T.J. Neal standing right next to the hole watching Hunt run by him) as Hunt racked up 177 yards. And unlike Melvin Gordon, no one is talking about Akeem Hunt as a Heisman candidate.
They also don't have their starting QB
Not only did Illinois lose the game to Purdue last week, it also lost starting quarterback Wes Lunt. Lunt broke his leg against Purdue, and he is expected to miss the next 4-to-6 weeks, also known as the meat of the Big Ten schedule.
Lunt's absence means that senior Reilly O'Toole will take over the starting job. O'Toole opened the season holding a clipboard, but he has already played this year, filling in for Lunt in Illinois's defeat at Nebraska. Of course, there is good reason O'Toole has been kept on the sidelines, as he has only one touchdown to four interceptions (one more than Joel Stave).
While nobody's about to launch a "Lunt for Heisman" campaign, there's a fairly steep drop-off from him to O'Toole. Lunt has led Illinois' passing offense to almost 2,000 passing yards through six games and 332 passing yards per game. Considering Illinois only averages 96 rushing yards per game (worst in the Big Ten, even worse than Penn State's oft-maligned running game), Lunt's absence will likely have a significant impact on the offense.
Assuming O'Toole is able to get them the ball, Illinois's top receivers are Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison. Dudek, a freshman, is more of a slot receiver in the Wes Welker mold, and he leads the Illini with 33 receptions. Allison is much more of a deep threat; standing at 6'3, the junior averages 17.3 yards per catch.
They have one hope
The real wild card of the Illinois offense is junior running back Josh Ferguson. Ferguson has carried the Illinois rushing attack this year, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Donovonn Young serves as the smaller Ferguson's short-yardage counterpart, the stereotypical "thunder" to Ferguson's "lightning." While Ferguson has only 30 more carries than Young this year, he has almost 300 more yards. Ferguson is the most explosive player on the Illinois offense, and as such is the focus of any opponent's defensive gameplan. That didn't stop him from taking this toss 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the Texas State game.
Ferguson is also a crucial part of Illinois' passing attack, and he will likely be relied on even more heavily this week with O'Toole at QB. Ferguson's versatility out of the backfield makes him something of a poor man's Ameer Abdullah, the difference being that Abdullah has a solid foundation around him at Nebraska, whereas Ferguson is generally on his own at Illinois.
Their defense is a joke
Against FBS teams, Illinois' best defensive performance came against Western Kentucky, to whom it gave up 34 points. Texas State scored 35. Washington, a team that scored 17 points against Hawaii and only 13 points against Stanford (admittedly, Stanford's defense is one of the best in the country; also, of course, Washington's only touchdown came on a fumble return), scored 44.
The Illinois defense, on average, gives up 482 yards per game as well as 4.8 yards per carry against the run.
That video of Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby gashing the Illinois defense for 60 yards is the defense's failure in a nutshell. Misread plays, missed tackles and weak defensive line play combined to allow a QB draw from Purdue's side of the field to nearly result in a touchdown. On Saturday, expect plenty of mistakes from the linebackers, including Neal and DeJazz Woods, as well as some gaping holes courtesy of the poor play of the defensive line led by senior nose tackle Austin Teitsma. It says a lot about the defense that two of the top three leading tacklers are the starting safeties, Zane Petty and Taylor Barton.
This could be the perfect opportunity for Ludwig to give Stave more reps at quarterback in hopes of getting him once again acclimated with the offense. Illinois' passing defense has allowed an average of 232.8 passing yards per game and an average of 7.8 yards per attempt this season.
It's hard to imagine a worse matchup for Illinois this week than Wisconsin. The Badgers will be looking to prove how their offensive is capable of performing, and if Gary Andersen's team can jump out to a big lead early on, expect Andersen to keep his foot on the gas pedal in hopes of silencing some critics.