This week's previews:
Tweets from B5Q (Jake is covering the game today):
An Illinois player you should know about: DE Dawuane Smoot
The Illinois defensive rankings and statistics may lead you to believe that the unit is completely devoid of talent, that Wisconsin should put up huge numbers on its way to an eighth straight win by several touchdowns. Don’t let those rankings—11th in the Big Ten in points, total yards and rushing yards allowed; eighth in passing yards allowed—fool you. There’s plenty for the Badgers to be worried about.
Most of that worry will be focused up front, as the Wisconsin offensive line is tasked with taking on an extremely talented defensive front. Specifically, that worry should be on the defensive ends, Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot.
Phillips presents challenges of his own and owns the statistical categories for the Illini. He ranks second in the Big Ten in sacks per game and fourth in the nation in tackles per loss per game. However, his running mate Smoot is our focus for several reasons:
1. Smoot typically rushes from the defense’s left side.
First of all, this places the dangerous rusher across from either Jacob Maxwell or David Edwards. This is clearly less of a challenge than Phillips on the other end, as he faces Ryan Ramczyk. This also places Smoot on the blind side of quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Early pressure could prevent Hornibrook from keeping his eyes downfield. Given Smoot’s “wicked” speed and ability to penetrate, the Badgers will want to give that right tackle some help. Need proof?
Nebraska ran away from Dawuane Smoot and chipped him most of the game in pass pro because he's a savage like this pic.twitter.com/JTBUhGtPwQ— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) October 24, 2016
2. Smoot doesn’t have the flashy stats that Phillips has, but he’s as effective.
We mentioned Phillips’s credentials and stats above, and for good reason. His sacks and tackles for loss numbers are terrific and lead the Illini defense. Smoot, however, has made a large impact himself. He has three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss on the season, but has added seven recorded quarterback hits; the next closest defender on Illinois has yeo. Phillips may rank second in tackles for loss per game in the conference, but Smoot leads the conference in conference games. He’s forced two fumbles and recorded a safety for the defense as well. Even more startling was his performance last week, as Smoot recorded 11(!) pressures. He figures to be everywhere on Saturday.
3. His play backs up his credentials and his credentials support his play.
While both pass rushers are seniors and will need to be contained on Saturday, Smoot is more of the veteran while Phillips is more of the startup.
Phillips began his collegiate career at linebacker, at a junior college. He worked his way to becoming the No. 12 ranked outside linebacker by ESPN.com. He is now in his third season with the Illini and is thriving, but had only three sacks entering the season. I haven’t watched the tape (I leave that to guys like Owen Riese), but I’m willing to bet he benefits from the attention Smoot receives on a weekly basis.
And that attention is well-deserved by Smoot. This Saturday, the 6’3, 265-pound Smoot will make his 22nd consecutive start for the Illini. He’s been playing and recording sacks since his freshman season and is currently tied for eighth in school history in tackles for loss. Last season, he earned All-Big Ten honorable mention after an eight-sack, 15-tackle for loss season (both led the team). This season, he found himself on just about every preseason watch list and ranked among the elite defenders in the nation. To top it off, his combination of speed and size should land him a spot in the 2017 NFL draft:
Love me some Dawuane Smoot at Illinois. https://t.co/jXgm4XMKpU— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 5, 2016
Yes, it’s going to take more than Smoot’s talent on Saturday. Yes, Phillips is very good and we didn’t even mention fellow lineman Chunky Clements. And, yes, it’s entirely possible that Wisconsin runs the ball so well that the pass rush doesn’t matter. However, against an offensive line and quarterback tandem that have shuffled for most of the season, Smoot and the rest of the Illini pass rush are good enough to shut down the Badgers’ pass attack.