The No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers’ quest for a Big Ten West title continues Saturday as they host the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten). It’s Homecoming weekend in Madison and the Illini are looking for their first win in the city since 2002. They’ll also try to snap a six-game losing streak to the Badgers.
It will be easier said than done for Illinois, who is led by first-year head coach Lovie Smith. Smith is no rookie head coach—his coaching experience includes nine years as head coach of the Chicago Bears, whom he led to a Super Bowl. Illinois has had ups and downs all season and is coming off a 31-27 victory over the reeling Michigan State Spartans.
While Smith and the Illini look to pull the upset and gain a landmark win, Paul Chryst and his Badgers have their eyes on a bigger prize: a Big Ten championship. The 7-2 Badgers enter what, on paper, should be a big break in their vaunted schedule as they face the bottom two teams in the Big Ten West over their next two games. With six of their nine games already being decided by eight points or fewer, Wisconsin and the Camp Randall Stadium crowd would welcome a game with some breathing room.
When and where is the game?
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.
How can I watch?
ESPN2 will broadcast the game. Allen Bestwick will cover the play-by-play and he’ll be assisted by Mike Bellotti (color) and Kris Budden (sideline).
How can I stream the game online?
How can I listen to it on the radio?
On the Badgers Sports Network, where you’ll find the usual and terrific grouping of Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Mark Tauscher and Patrick Herb. On satellite radio, you’ll find the broadcast on Sirius 84 / XM 84. Otherwise, head to BadgerSportsNetwork.com to find it. You can also listen on iHeartRadio (iOS/Android/online) by searching WIBA.
What’s at stake?
With three games to play, the Badgers sit in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten West. A win over the Illini keeps Wisconsin in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten West title, as they possess a win over one of the tied teams (Nebraska) and face the other in two weeks (Minnesota).
What can I expect to see?
Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 21-7 win at Northwestern
Polls: No. 7 in College Football Playoff Rankings (last week: No. 8)
Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (17-5)
Illinois (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten; Unofficial Depth Chart)
Last week: 31-27 win vs. Michigan State
Polls: Not ranked
Head coach: Lovie Smith, first season at Illinois (3-6)
When Illinois has the ball:
|Illinois Offensive Rankings
It’s easy to conclude from those rankings that the Illini have struggled offensively, despite putting up 31 points in last week’s victory over Michigan State. It was only the second time in six conference games that they’d scored more than 24 points in a game. The unit also ranks last in the Big Ten with 14.9 first downs per game. Part of the problem has been injuries to the quarterback position. Senior quarterback Wes Lunt will miss his fifth straight game on Saturday; he had previously started 17 straight for Illinois. Second-string quarterback Chayce Crouch is also injured, which paves the way for redshirt freshman Jeff George, Jr. (yes, this is Jeff George, Sr.) to make his fourth straight start. George has completed only completed 42.3 percent of his passes on the season, with four touchdowns and a lone interception. Two of those touchdowns came last week, including the game-winner with less than two minutes remaining.
On the receiving end of that game-winning touchdown was wide receiver Sam Mays. While he led the team in receiving against Michigan State, he is not typically the go-to option through the air. That title belongs to junior Malik Turner. The 6’3 wide receiver averages over four catches and 65 yards per contest and has found the end zone four times. He missed last week’s game with a concussion and his status is unknown for this weekend, a huge problem for a team with an inexperienced quarterback and no other player averaging better than 18.3 yards per game.
While the Illini don’t run the ball particularly well on paper, much of that can be attributed to the fact that they have played from behind often this season. Junior Kendrick Foster leads the way on the ground and is explosive. He only averages 66 yards per game but has totaled seven rushing touchdowns, four of which came from 30-plus yards out. He has combined with sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn and redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin to total over 1,300 yards and average 6.27 yards per carry.
|Wisconsin Defensive Rankings
|Rush Yds Allowed
|Pass. Yds Allowed
George, Foster and whichever receivers are playing will face a much tougher test than a week ago, as they will line up against the conference’s best run defense and third-ranked total defense. To make matters worse for the Illini, Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s unit appears to be getting healthier. Cornerback Natrell Jamerson was left off the injury report. He was listed as questionable last week and reportedly saw action on special teams. Besides the season-long injuries that have been listed for a couple of weeks, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu is the only other Badgers defender listed on the injury report. He will miss his fourth straight game.
If we’re being honest, deep analysis on this matchup really ends here. The Badgers need to get its typical pressure on George while keeping Foster from hurting them like he did Michigan State. For their offensive struggles, Illinois does not turn the ball over a ton (sixth in the Big Ten in giveaways). If the Badgers are able to force a few to set up the offense with a short field, they should find the going easy.
When Wisconsin has the ball:
|Wisconsin Offensive Rankings
The two-quarterback experiment has transformed into a way of life for the Wisconsin offense and Saturday is expected to be the fourth straight game in which the Badgers play both redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and fifth-year senior Bart Houston. The change from one quarterback to two hasn’t been meet with shining results; while Wisconsin has won each game, it has yet to score more than the 21 points it put up against Northwestern last week.
Luckily for the Badgers, their running game has remained steady over that stretch. Running back Corey Clement eclipsed 100 yards again last week, the fourth straight week in which the Badgers had a hundred-yard rusher. Clement and fellow running backs Dare Ogonbowale and Bradrick Shaw should find even more room, as Illinois surrenders nearly 200 rushing yards per game.
Up front, it will be the typical cast of characters for the Badgers. Only one question mark remains, and that is whether right tackle Jacob Maxwell will play. Maxwell is listed as questionable for Saturday and he’s missed the last couple of games due to injury.
|Illinois Defensive Rankings
|Rush Yds Allowed
|Pass. Yds Allowed
Illinois will stress Wisconsin’s offensive line and, in turn, both quarterbacks. The Illini is tied with the Badgers’ defense for fourth in the Big Ten with 22 sacks per game. Leading the pass rush is defensive end Carroll Phillips, who’s recorded seven sacks, second-most in the conference. Opposite of Phillips is Dawuane Smoot, who has added three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. If Illinois is going to pull the upset on Saturday, it starts defensively with this unit.
The conference’s second-leading tackler backs up the talented defensive line. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson has totaled 85 tackles and two sacks on the season. Despite his productivity, Illinois has surrendered nearly 200 rushing yards per game.
Despite being ranked fourth in the Big Ten in takeaways and sacks, there are a couple of trouble areas for Illinois statistically. Besides the aforementioned rushing defense, the Illini have shown the inability to get off the field (13th in the Big Ten in opposing third-down conversion rate) and rank 12th in the conference in opponent first downs. Overall, the Badgers need to take the pass rush out of the game with a consistent rushing effort. If they’re able to do that and shake the red-zone issues that have plagued them all season, they’ll be in good shape.
In terms of net average, Illinois’s kickoff coverage unit ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten. Kicker Chase McLaughlin pulls double duty, covering both kickoffs and placekicking. He’s nailed a 53-yard field goal this season and has made 11 of 14 kicks overall. All three of his misses came from 41-plus yards out. Senior Ryan Frain holds for McLaughlin, handles punts and ranks near the middle of the conference in average.
Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott continues his work at kicker in place of the injured Rafael Gaglianone. Entering his seventh game handling kicking duties, Endicott has converted eight of 13 field goals and 11 of 13 extra points. He made two of four kicks last weekend. Freshman punter Anthony Lotti broke through against Northwestern, placing six of his seven punts inside the 20-yard line, helping to stymie the Wildcats’ offense.