The No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers take on a rebuilding Illinois squad at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday during Homecoming weekend.
UW (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) rides a three-game winning streak and is now the frontrunner for the Big Ten West division, provided it wins its next three regular-season opponents.
There’s a lot of hype for the Badgers, especially against an Illini team trying to pick up the pieces from the Tim Beckman era, but the players are trying to stay focused one week at a time.
“We actually talked about that today in our team meeting,” redshirt junior defensive end Alec James said on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of outside noise trying to come in like we’re in the driver’s seat and all that. We just really got to focus on ourselves and do our job. All we got is us, and we just got to focus on that. It’s got us to this point, and if we can block the outside noise, we’ll be alright.”
Illinois (3-6, 2-4) now is under the leadership of former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith. There’s a lot of talent in the backfield and on the defensive line for the Badgers to account for.
“I’ve always thought Illinois, every time we’ve played against them, they’ve got a ton of talented players,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday. “I’m seeing on film now, the coaching and still a lot of talent. I’m sure he’s having a huge impact on them, but I think it’s a really talented team. I know they’re well coached, and it’ll be a challenge for us.”
The three keys to a Wisconsin win:
Contain Illinois’s running game
Wisconsin leads the conference and is fifth in the nation in rush defense, allowing only 101.2 yards per game. Illinois comes into the contest with a talented combination of running backs in Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin who have rushed for 1,017 yards total. Both are averaging over six yards per carry (Foster 6.3 yards per clip, Corbin 7.4). Illinois as a team averages 163.2 yards per contest.
“Every team we play in the Big Ten, you’re going to play one of the best backs in the country,” James said. “This is just another case this week.”
Contain the Illini rushing attack, and it could be a feast for the Badgers’ defense. Illinois’s passing attack only yields 164.4 yards per game, second-to-last in the conference and 113th in the nation. Jeff George, Jr. has completed only 42.3 percent of his passes, but led a five-play, 75-yard drive with 2:52 left in the game against Michigan State last week. That led to a 16-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hays in Illinois’s 31-27 victory. George Jr. completed all three of his passes on that drive, along with some help from two Michigan State pass interference penalties.
“We just got to have good eyes, play our technique and play our 1/11th,” redshirt sophomore safety D’Cota Dixon said on Wednesday.
“Run the dang ball”
I miss Drew Hamm. Illinois gives up 191.9 yards per game on the ground, fourth-worst in the conference heading into Saturday’s game. Wisconsin’s rushed for just above 180 per contest.
For a running game that’s picked up steam since the stagnant performance against Michigan, the Badgers have made some significant progress in a key area of their offense.
Illinois has some significant playmakers on the defensive line, however, with Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Chunky Clements combining for 33 tackles for loss. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson leads the team in tackles (85), while sophomore Tre Watson earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors last week for his 16-tackle performance (1.5 for loss) against the Spartans last week.
“I think momentum’s the right word,” left guard Jon Dietzen said when asked about the run game. “It’s definitely something we have to find, and we tend to take a little bit longer to find it. I think we need to work on coming out with that momentum right away. Sometimes it takes a few series before we get rolling, but then we get rolling, it’s going good. I think we got to be able find find that early and keep going.”
Keep the quarterbacks upright
Those defensive linemen could give Wisconsin fits on Saturday afternoon, as Illinois is tied for fourth in the Big Ten with UW in sacks (22). Phillips is second in the conference in sacks (7.5), while Clements and Smooth have each recorded 3.5 and three, respectively.
The continuous carousel between redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and redshirt senior Bart Houston at quarterback has continued since the Iowa game and probably will on Saturday. If the Badgers can move the pocket and keep their signal callers off the turf during the game, it’ll only help the offense.
Fun stat No. 1: Illinois is second-to-last in the conference in third-down conversions (30.4 percent). Wisconsin is second in the conference in holding opponents on third downs (28.8 percent).
Fun stat No. 2: Wisconsin’s time of possession through nine games: 34:20 (second in conference). Illinois is last in the conference with 26:21.
Many have called it the “lighter” part of Wisconsin’s schedule, but the Badgers realize that buying into that hype train could derail their chances at returning to Indianapolis.
With Illinois’s passing game mediocre at best, Wisconsin focuses in on stopping Foster and Corbin. The offense continues to progress on the ground against the Illini defense that’s 84th in the nation against the run. The offensive line contains the Illini defensive front, which helps with some big runs by senior running back Corey Clement and redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw.
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 10