The No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers are in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West division, provided they win out the rest of their regular season games.
UW (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) takes on Illinois (3-6, 2-4), who is rebuilding the program with former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini boast some formidable defensive linemen and a rushing attack averaging over 160 yards per game.
The Illini are off to a 3-6 mark, 2-4 overall in conference, under the leadership of Lovie Smith. What are the noticeably changes you've seen this season from Illinois?
There have been some big changes since this time last year for Illinois, with Lovie Smith obviously being the most notable one. Following his hire back in March, some fans’ expectations for this season rose immensely. Even Illini beat writers were calling for as many as seven or eight wins. Personally, I was not in that camp. I called for a 5-7 campaign with an eye towards the future of what this program could be under Smith. The fact of the matter is that these aren't Lovie’s players. These are Tim Beckman’s players that were given less than two weeks to adapt to an entirely new offensive and defensive system before spring ball began. So while some fans are obviously disappointed that 2016 isn’t going the way they hoped, I wouldn’t say there are any jumping off the Lovie bandwagon just yet because it’s far too early in the rebuilding process. Rome wasn’t build in one day, and I think this fanbase is willing to give Smith the benefit of the doubt given that some things have already taken a turn for the better.
Illinois' used three quarterbacks this season, but injuries to Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch have opened the door for Jeff George Jr. to step up. What have you seen from George Jr. this year in the four games he's played? Is Lunt coming back any time soon?
Lunt finally returned to practice and was even fully dressed on gameday last weekend, but didn’t play against Michigan State. It looks like he is close to returning, but Lovie is very tight-lipped about injuries (he doesn’t even release depth charts anymore) so it’s unclear whether or not we’ll see Lunt this Saturday. Jeff George, Jr. was under a lot of fire after his first three performances under center. The first start of his career was a 33-point loss to Michigan and he followed that up with a disappointing 23-point loss to Minnesota at home. But then against the Spartans last weekend George Jr. seemed to come alive. He engineered some incredibly impressive drives late in the first half and fourth quarter, including a game-winning 35-yard touchdown throw with less than two minutes left to seal an Illinois victory. Fans’ opinions of George Jr. have changed drastically after last Saturday’s comeback win, but the fact of the matter is that he’s still just a freshman and is mistake-prone (especially on the road). Last week’s performance have eased some fans’ worries but pretty much any Illini fan you ask would still greatly prefer Lunt under center.
The ground game has averaged 163.2 yards per game. What does Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin bring to the ground game, and who are the skill players Wisconsin needs to watch out for?
Both Foster and Corbin have been pleasant surprises this season for Illinois, and they’re probably the team's best playmakers on offense. Foster is more of a downhill runner who trucks his way through defenders and gets the tough yards on third down when the team needs it. He especially did this against Michigan State, running for over 150 yards including two clutch touchdown scampers to help propel Illinois to victory. Corbin, on the other hand, is a much more elusive back who makes his living on screen plays and outside runs. Nebraska coach Mike Reilly called him a “fast little bugger,” and I think that describes Corbin perfectly. The carries are distributed pretty equally between Foster and Corbin right now, but after his strong performance against Michigan State I’d guess Foster gets the start against Wisconsin this weekend and stays in the game until he does something wrong.
On defense, Illinois' defensive line with Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips (plus Chunky Clements) could give Wisconsin fits. What's made them so effective, and who else from the defense (perhaps Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Tre Watson) do you feel could make some plays on Saturday?
The defensive line was expected to be great this year for Illinois and it hasn’t let the fanbase down. As you mentioned, Smoot, Phillips and Clements are all potential NFL prospects. They have a unique ability to collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback about as quickly as I’ve ever seen. Smoot in particular is just wicked fast and can penetrate the opponent’s offensive line ridiculously quickly. Other players to watch out for on Saturday would be Tre Watson (who had a spectacular breakout performance against MSU), Patrick Nelson (who wasn’t even expected to be a starter at the beginning of the year but is now cemented at strong safety) and Stanley Green (a freshman who some expected to redshirt this season but has actually made a big impact in the Illini secondary). The Illinois defense overall has seen a big youth movement in recent weeks and it’s starting to pay off with solid performances and turnovers being created. I definitely have a much more positive outlook on this unit heading into future Lovie seasons with how well some of the youngsters have looked in Big Ten play.
Where do you feel Illinois is vulnerable both on offense and defense?
There are several key areas where Illinois has struggled this year. Wide receiver, for one, has been a huge sore spot. Heading into 2016 the wideout corps was expected to be mediocre at best. Then the Illini lost their best overall player, Mike Dudek, and their best remaining receiver, Malik Turner, to injuries. So the pickings are slim at wide receiver and Illinois’ first and second string quarterbacks are out with injuries. Needless to say the passing game is definitely the team’s biggest vulnerability on the offensive side of the ball (ranks 113th in the nation in yards per game). On the other side, the Illinois D has had a huge problem stopping opponents’ ground games all season long (somewhere Corey Clement licks his chops). They give up an average of 191 rushing yards per game, which isn’t in the top 80 in the nation. More than anything it’s been the big run plays that have killed the Illini. It seems like at least once or twice a game there is a huge gash in the secondary and an opposing RB rips off a huge 60 or 70-yard run.
Keys to the game, and what's your prediction?
The biggest key for Illinois is to start strong. In their wins this year, the Illini have always had a lead at halftime. I think coming off a big momentum win over Michigan State needs to translate over to a strong first-half performance in Madison on Saturday. If this game is still close in the third or even fourth quarter, you never know what might happen. But I don’t think that will be the case. Wisconsin still has a legit shot to reach the College Football Playoff if they run the table and win the Big Ten Championship, and I don’t think the depleted Illinois offense can keep up with the Badgers’ shut-down D. Wisconsin 34, Illinois 13.