While the tour de force #Rosin4Illinois head coaching campaign has been a failure, the Fighting Illini have been able to build on last season's 6-7 record that included sneaking into the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Sure, there's been a lucky bounce or two, but they've definitely made strides -- and on homecoming with their Red Grange tribute uniforms, they feel like everything's going for them before a 2:30 p.m. CT game this Saturday against the Badgers.
When you have a pretty efficient combination of quarterback Wes Lunt and one of sixteen people to average one hundred yards per game catching the ball in wide receiver Geronimo Allison, you definitely have a challenge set up through the air for the player that draws them -- yet his receiving tag team partner Marchie Murdock is set to miss the game. And while Desmond Cain and Malik Taylor are both talented and athletic, they are rather young wide receivers. A veteran and experienced secondary is set to face what one could argue is their best wide receiver of the season. But his support might not be ready.
In the running game, the Illini have statistically trailed the Badgers in terms of all the major categories. In most seasons, that's fine. After all, toting the rock to a ridiculous level is what the Badgers do. That said, Illinois joins Purdue as teams whose running games are lesser than the Badgers. When healthy, that is not a problem -- but senior running back and second best weapon on the team, Josh Ferguson, is out. The youth amongst the Badgers front seven is set to face true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who while talented, hasn't really been a big play threat on the ground with 397 yards on 4.1 yards per carry (though he has broken off a 48-yard run this season).
As for the Badgers, the question is will the back teaming with Dare Ogunbowale be Alec Ingold or possibly Corey Clement? Clement's achingly close to a return, but it's not as certain as the fact that Tawian Deal is flat out for the game. Ingold runs with the leverage and power of an all-state wrestler, but Clement is a strong upgrade -- and with a run defense that has been shown to be had by power five opponents, there are gains to be made on the front seven led by junior defensive linemen Chunky Clements.
The pass defense can shut down an opponent with a subpar quarterback (Insert your joke about redshirt senior Joel Stave...here), but this is a passing game that has weapons that have more quantity, if not the statistical quality of Middle Tennessee. (Middle Tennessee already has two wide receivers with 50-plus catches. Seriously. They're pretty great.) I'm not gonna tell you that a bad day from Stave is out of the question, but linebacker Dawuane Smoot has five of their six sacks on the year. Keep him blocked and odds are the Badgers are set to have a real strong day through the air especially if the hands remain as strong as they were last week.
The special teams aspect that is most interesting is the place kicking. Sophomore Rafael Gaglianone has been cursed by the support of Hamm (B5Q writer Drew Hamm) and is currently 10-for-17 on field goals or worse than Kyle French in 2012. For the Illini, Taylor Zalewski is 8-for-13. In a game that could be close, the shakiness of the kicker might be the difference.
The Illini are better than they were last year, but they still have distance to close before they reach their peak. With them being as banged up the Illini are still underdogs in Champaign, Ill., it's not a game the Badgers can look past even beyond the Illini's history of being a game opponent.
But if the Badgers play to their paper level, they'll be bowl eligible when the sun goes down.