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Evaluating Wisconsin after the road win at Illinois

Our roundtable gives final thoughts on the Badgers’ win in Champaign and looks ahead to the Hoosiers.

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

We all know it was not the most pretty of wins for the now-No.4 Wisconsin Badgers in their 24–10 road victory over Illinois on Saturday.

The offense sputtered without true freshman Jonathan Taylor for a good chunk of the game and needed a #BigGuyTouchdown in the fourth quarter to really seal the road win.

Wisconsin’s defense continued its impressive year, holding Illinois to 286 yards of total offense while creating three turnovers and five sacks.

Now the Badgers, with their roster speckled with injuries to key players like Taylor, Quintez Cephus, and D’Cota Dixon, travel to Bloomington to take on an Indiana squad that has not won a conference game this season. That doesn’t mean the Hoosiers haven’t played tough against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, though.

Our roundtable of writers convenes once again to break down the win and what’s ahead.

The Good: What went well in Champaign on Saturday?

Owen Riese: The Badgers won, man. It was ugly and unimpressive, but they are now 8–0 and survive and advance to Indiana next weekend. They found a way to win, which is the most important.

Ryan Mellenthin: While the offense struggled to find its footing, the defense was the Wisconsin defense we all know and love. Garrett Groshek played very well in relief of Taylor, once he left with an injury. Groshek is quickly becoming a regular in the crowded Badger backfield. Not to mention, a 328-pound offensive lineman scored a touchdown.

Kevin O’Connell: It can be easy to forget just how great Wisconsin’s defense is after watching it dominate teams seemingly with ease on a week-to-week basis. The secondary has improved with every game, a testament to Jim Leonhard’s defensive back expertise, and it clamped down on Illinois’s passing attack all afternoon. Led by the duo of Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, the Badgers’ secondary finished with eight defended passes and two interceptions, albeit against an inept Illinois offense. Still, UW’s defensive backs have made some huge strides this year and they played exceptional in Champaign.

The Bad: What needs to be cleaned up?

Owen: About everything. It was pretty clear that Wisconsin shortened the playbook as to not show its hand for the stretch run to end the season, but execution was lacking up front. It was an ugly, sloppy game.

Ryan: Wisconsin’s offense needs some fine-tuning. This is the second time in three weeks where Wisconsin has done just enough to get by on offense. If they hope to continue their unbeaten streak, doing just enough may prove to not be enough. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook needs to be able to exploit the defense more efficiently when the opposition loads the box, which is something he was unable to do against Illinois.

Kevin: I know this is an obvious critique, but Hornibrook needs to limit his mistakes if Wisconsin wants any shot at winning a Big Ten championship. As Owen mentioned, the game plan was definitely conservative, so I won’t knock Hornibrook for completing only 10 passes on the day, but his interception came at an inopportune time and allowed the Illini to hang around longer than they should have. The redshirt sophomore signal caller will be tested on the road at Indiana, against a Hoosiers team that ranks 19th in the country in passing yards allowed.

Game balls: Who deserves ‘em?

Owen: Nick Nelson. He’s the dude. He’s a dog and plays with the swagger this defense oozes week in and week out. He’ll be playing on Sunday’s sooner rather than later.

Ryan: I have to give out two this week. First off, I agree with Owen, Nelson was a force on defense per usual. Nelson broke up four passes on Saturday, which was half of the Wisconsin defense’s eight pass break-ups. The second one goes to the most efficient scorer in the NCAA, Michael Deiter, who scored his first touchdown of his collegiate career on his first carry.

Kevin: I’ll give my game ball to defensive end Alec James, who has quietly become a force for Leonhard’s defense in 2017. The senior finished with four tackles, two sacks, and a fumble recovery against the Illini, and has been a key cog in Wisconsin’s injury-plagued defensive line all season.

Up next: Indiana. Early keys to a game that already has some worried?

Owen: Limiting mistakes and time of possession. Indiana scores quick, make them play by making their defense play the whole game.

Ryan: Wisconsin will want to look to start strong offensively against Indiana and win the turnover battle and cut back on its turnovers. Hornibrook has thrown at least one interception in five straight games and has thrown interceptions in six of eight games this season.

Kevin: This has all the makings of a trap game, so as Ryan said, it’s imperative the Badgers get on the board early against a surprisingly stout Indiana defense. The Hoosiers rank 30th in the country in total defense and put a scare into Michigan and Michigan State already this season. Keep an eye out for outside linebacker Tegray Scales, an All-Big Ten talent and future NFL draft pick, who will need to be contained in pass protection.