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Wisconsin football: Keys to Victory against Illinois

What do the Badgers need to do to avoid an upset again in 2020?

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen it feels SO GOOD to be back! Honestly, I am so excited to be writing this piece as we work our way to Friday night’s kickoff. It’s been a long, difficult off-season but we’ve all been patient and 2020 finally gave us some good news in Big Ten football.

As much as I love writing my betting write ups and doing the podcast each week, this is my favorite piece to write. Each week it’s a nice little stats deep dive to give you some insight on what the Badgers need to do to win. I love researching it, and I hope you enjoy it too.

So without further ado, here are the keys to victory to give Illinois the butt-whoopin’ they so richly deserve and avoid another upset.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois USA TODAY Sports

Hang onto the damn football

Alright so we all remember last year’s game, right? Of course you do. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, you look at the stats and you think how the hell did Wisconsin lose this game. The Badgers out-gained Illinois by a full 100 yards, they dominated the time of possession 40 minutes to 20, and they we’re 9-for-17 on third down vs. 2-for-10 for Illinois. Jack Coan was 24-of-32 while Brandon Peters completed just nine passes. So again, how did Wisconsin lose that stupid football game?

Turnovers. Key ones at key times.

In fact, much of Illinois success came from turnovers in 2019. They we’re +10 in turnover margin on the season, which ranked No. 12 in the nation and led the Big Ten. It was by far their best statistical mark. The Illini went 6-7 on the year, and in the six games they won, they won the turnover battle in five of them. Essentially, if you turned it over more than Illinois did, you were probably losing the football game.

The same theory applies here in 2020. Hang onto the football, and force them to cough it up, and you’ve set yourself up to win. It’s easier said than done, but if the Badgers can protect the rock and maybe force a couple errors of their own, they should start out with a W.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Run the damn ball

Ok, so yeah, if you’re reading this you’re thinking “wow what a bold take that a Wisconsin blogger that blogs for a site that’s mantra is ‘run the damn ball’ is telling me the Badgers need to run the damn ball.” Point taken, BUT the point still stands and let me explain to you why.

Illinois ranked No. 103 against the run in 2019. They we’re gashed by it all season long, and if there is weakness on the Illinois defense it is in their front on the defensive line. The illini bring back five starters on defense, but none on the defensive line. The strength of their unit should be at outside linebacker and in the secondary with three of their four secondary players returning. Last year Illinois ranked No. 45 in pass defense, so the recipe for success was without a doubt running it at them often. In order to take some pressure off of new quarterback Graham Mertz, the run has to be established in this game. Not only will it lessen his load, but it will allow Wisconsin to get him some easier throws in play action. Stay ahead of the sticks and let the Graham Mertz Experience start out gradually.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois USA TODAY Sports

Get to the damn quarterback

Last year Chris Orr had a field day for the Badgers against Illinois racking up three sacks in the game. However, he’s off to the next level and the Badgers will have to find new faces to impact in the pass rushing game. In Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers are the key to the pass rush, and if they don’t get contributions from new faces it will be the biggest concern on the defensive side of the football.

In this matchup, getting to the quarterback will be as important as ever. Illinois lived off turnovers and they died on sacks last year. In fact, they allowed 2.8 sacks per game which ranked No. 113 in the nation. Brandon Peters faced a lot of pressure, and it hurt their offensive production. They couldn’t get time to throw much of the time, and it resulted in a passing game that ranked No. 105 in college football.

This year the Illini bring back Peters and four starters up front to pair with their top four leading receivers from a season ago. With no Reggie Corbin in the backfield at tailback, their recipe for success on offense will have to come by throwing the ball better. One way to stop that, is to get to the QB often. If the Badgers can get to Peters, who is a statue in the pocket, it should allow them to slow down the Illinois offense like they did last year.