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Getting to know Illinois

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A look at the Badgers’ next opponent.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Homecoming week continues for the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers, but festivities ramp up on Saturday when they face the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois (3–3, 1–2 Big Ten) disappointed in its own homecoming last weekend, falling in a lopsided 46–7 loss to Purdue. Head coach Lovie Smith’s squad gave up 611 yards while only gaining 250.

Illinois ranks poorly in several major categories, but does perform well in two areas of the game.

Be sure to also check out our Q&A with The Champaign Room’s Raul Rodriguez for his take on Lovie Smith and this season.

Offense

  • Total offense: 384.2 yards per game (86th in nation)
  • Scoring offense: 25.5 points per game (T-93rd in nation)
  • Rush offense: 228.8 yards per game (22nd in nation)
  • Pass offense: 155.3 yards per game (116th in nation)
  • Third-down conversion: 34.5 percent (108th in nation)

On paper, the Illinois offense heavily relies on its rushing attack, which is 22nd in the FBS. Running backs Reggie Corbin (522 yards, 7.4 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Mike Epstein (404, 6.8, three) provide a potent one-two punch in the backfield.

Quarterback AJ Bush has started four of Illinois’s six games this year, including the last two, but has completed only 54.8 percent of his passes for 482 yards with one touchdown and interception. He has also gained 282 yards on the ground at a 4.4 yards-per-carry clip with three more scores on the ground. M.J. Rivers has completed 63 percent of his passes for 422 yards with three touchdowns to one interception.

Receiving-wise, Sam Mays and Trenard Davis lead the team with 16 catches each, while sophomore Ricky Smalling averages nearly 13 yards per reception and has scored three touchdowns. However, as seen above, Illinois is among the worst in the nation in throwing the ball.

Fun fact: Illinois has gone over 50 percent in third-down conversions only once this season, against Rutgers in a 38–17 win.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

  • Total defense: 504.7 yards per game (124th in nation)
  • Scoring defense: 31.5 points per game (T-95th in nation)
  • Rush defense: 199.5 yards per game (107th in nation)
  • Pass defense: 305.2 yards per game (125th in nation)
  • Third-down conversion: 39 percent (72nd in nation)

Like its offense, the stats for Illinois’s defense show a unit that can be scored upon and gives up a good chunk of change in yardage.

Against the run, Illinois has allowed 183 or more yards in four of its six games. with Penn State racking up 387 on the ground earlier this season.

However, right tackle David Edwards also remembers facing a physical team that bottled up Wisconsin to 303 total yards in UW’s 24-10 win at Champaign last season.

“I think if you look at the film that we put against them last year, we struggled moving the ball in the run game and in the pass game,” Edwards said on Tuesday. “I think that this year in particular, it’s going to be a really good challenge just to be able to move the football running on first and second down and then being effective on third down. I think they got really talented players. I don’t think that their record really shows how good of a team they are.”

Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips leads the Illini in tackles (50), while linebacker Jake Hansen owns six tackles for loss, best on the unit. Defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree leads Illinois in three sacks and five pass break-ups while also contributing 34 tackles, five for loss.

“I think they do have a lot of talent, and they play very aggressive” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on Tuesday. “They got an aggressive defense, they will challenge you. Sometimes that aggressiveness has really been good for them, and sometimes it’s worked against them, but I like the way they play the game, I do. I think they’re a talented group.”

Illinois leads the Big Ten and ranks 12th nationally in turnovers per game (2.17). Averaging 1.83 interceptions per contest, the Illini defense ranks fourth nationally and second in the nation. Its 11 interceptions ranks tied for fifth in the country, with Phillips and defensive back Jartavius Martin each reeling in three. Eight of the 11 interceptions have come from Illinois’s defensive backs.

“I think that they’re aggressive from the jump,” Rudolph said. “They’re on. They’re a lot of man, a lot of press, and they get their hands on balls and tipped balls up front. They’ve made plays when they’ve kind of ricocheted them, they’ve been in the air. I think they play aggressive and so they play for those opportunities. I think it’s coached into them and they do a great job of it, so for us, we’re going to have to play.

“We’re going to have to create separation, going to have to do a great job with being accurate with the throws.”

According to Wisconsin wide receiver A.J. Taylor, Illinois’s defensive backs are young but they compete.

“I love it when we play teams that compete because it elevates your game,” Taylor said on Tuesday. “Their DBs, they compete for the ball. They don't just let things come to you. They’re going to fight, you’re going to have to work for it.

“It’s going to be kind of similar to Michigan where we’re going to have make contested plays. We’re going to win our one-on-one match-ups and stuff like that.”

Special teams

Placekicker Chase McLaughlin has converted on nine of 14 field goals and has connected on all 18 extra-point attempts. He is tied for the national lead in 50-yard-plus field goals (three).

Punter Blake Hayes averages 45.1 yards per boot, with 12 of 50-plus yards and 16 inside the 20-yard line.

Illinois has only eight punt returns all year, with Carlos Sandy holding both kickoff and punt return duties. He averages 19.5 yards per kickoff return with a long of 26.