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Wisconsin vs. Illinois: What to know about the Illini

The Champaign Room previews Lovie Smith’s young squad.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A two-week road swing is in store for the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers, as they first head to Champaign, Ill., to take on Lovie Smith’s Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday.

Wisconsin (7–0, 4–0 Big Ten) is coming off its 38–13 homecoming weekend win over Maryland. Despite a rough start by the Badgers’ offense, a pick-six by inside linebacker T.J. Edwards set the tone in the first quarter and gave them a lead they would never relinquish. Jonathan Taylor continued his impressive start to his college football career, rushing for 126 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown.

Wisconsin’s defense held Maryland’s offense to only 268 total yards on the afternoon, along with containing Big Ten standout wide receiver D.J. Moore to only three receptions for 44 yards.

Illinois (2–5, 0–4), on the other hand, is coming off a 24–17 road loss at Minnesota. This is a very young program under second-year head coach Lovie Smith, with 75 underclassmen (sophomores and freshmen) on its roster. Fourteen true freshmen have started already this season, which leads the nation, and the Illini have played 21 true freshmen, also the most in the country.

The Illini’s defense has allowed 409.4 yards per game, second-worst in the conference behind Maryland. It is dead last in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per contest (210.7) while giving up nearly 200 yards through the air and 30 points per game.

Offensively, Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in points per game (18.3) and rushing offense (118.7 yards per game), along with 13th in total offense (313 yards per game).

The Champaign Room’s Brandon Birkhead helped us dissect what’s been going with Smith’s program.

Illinois has a lot of young players. Whats the cause for this, and what has also been the cause for the teams 25 start, which includes being 04 heading into Saturday’s match-up against Wisconsin?

Well, the cause for the 2–5 start comes directly from the stat you already referenced—Illinois is far too dependent on freshmen. Four out of the five offensive linemen are freshmen, with three of them being true freshmen. Illinois’s best running back is a freshman. The best receiver is a freshman. The best tight end is a freshman. The best quarterback may be a freshman. Both starting defensive ends are freshman. The secondary has two starting freshmen in it. A walk-on freshman started at linebacker.

There’s just no other way to put it than this team is just not ready to compete at the Big Ten level. About half of the starters were playing high school football less than one year ago. The team is just not good enough at the moment, though there is a lot of promise with the freshman class.

The reason for this awful situation was the terrible Tim Beckman (and one year of Bill Cubit) coaching era. The staff was completely over their heads and could not bring in talent to the team, and didn’t improve the talent they already had with coaching. The Beckman era was a complete disaster and destroyed any foundation that Illinois football had.

We always ask about injuries. Who could be out or returning for Illinois’s homecoming game, and how could that affect the Illinis gameplan?

Mike Epstein, Illinois’ leading rusher, is out for the season. Mike Dudek was out last week with a lower-body injury and could also be out again. The defense has really missed Tre Watson at middle linebacker, and he could continue to miss time. Lovie Smith and his staff are very secretive about injuries, so that's about all I can really say.

I don’t know if missing any of these players will effect Ilinois’s gameplan, because, to put it frankly, even with those players Illinois would still find it hard to move the ball on offense and stop the Wisconsin rushing attack on defense.

Offensively, Illinois is last in the conference in scoring (18.3 points per game) and second-to-last in total offense (313 yards per contest). However, the Illini have averaged 374 yards in their last three games. What have been the strengths of this offense, including the likes of true freshman Ricky Smalling?

The biggest strength for the Illinois offense is that it is technically a football offense. This offense has no strengths. It’s a bad offense, plain and simple. I tried to sugarcoat this earlier in the season, but this offense has shown over the course of the season that they cannot consistently move the ball in the passing or running game. With four freshman offensive linemen, it’s a total struggle. The bad quarterback play that has plagued the Illini has also held the offense back. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee is limited in the plays that he can call, and our offensive is very predictable.

The team has shown streaks of running the ball well, but with Epstein out the last few weeks, that effectiveness has gone down. True freshman quarterback Cam Thomas did gain 79 yards rushing in his first game action against Minnesota, and his presence could help the running attack going forward, but it’s a big question mark with his ability to throw the ball.

Defensively, the Illini are near the bottom of the conference in scoring defense, total defense, and rushing defense (dead-last in the latter category, giving up over 210 yards per game). Where could they stress Wisconsin on Saturday, and where can they also be exploited? Any players to watch for in key match-ups like Del’Shawn Phillips, Tre Watson, or Bobby Roundtree?

Illinois has been awesome at stripping the ball away on defense and forcing fumbles ... that’s about it. Illinois has really struggled against the run and is about to play one of the best running teams in football. This is not a good match-up for Illinois.

As mentioned before, Watson may be out for the game again this week. Del'Shawn Phillips has been far behind expectations for Illinois as a JUCO transfer, and he has been surpassed in the starting lineup by a walk-on, though I think he could be back in it against Wisconsin.

Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay have shown flashes as true freshman defensive ends, but have really struggled against the run in Big Ten play as both are undersized right now for Big Ten football.

The best defensive player Illinois has is true freshman Bennett Williams. Williams was all over the field making plays against Minnesota. The freshman safety has shown some toughness and playmaking ability. He picked up a shoulder injury against Minnesota, but should be good to play against Wisconsin.

What are your keys to the game, and a score prediction?

The goal is to get through the game without major injuries and maybe score a touchdown for homecoming. Keep playing the young guys and focus on the future. This season was over before it began.

Illinois will be demolished. Badgers win 456, but show mercy at the end by not taking away Illinois’s soul.