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Keys to Victory against Illinois

What do the Badgers need to do to pick up a much needed victory against Illinois?

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

It’s been a rough start to the season so far, but the Wisconsin Badgers (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) will look to try and salvage something as they travel to Illinois to take on the Fighting Illini. Illinois has had their own struggles and comes into this game 2-4 on the year. Both teams desperately need a win to try and turn around their confidence.

Here is what Wisconsin needs to do to make sure they are the ones that come away with a much-needed victory.

Throw the football

Coming into this week Illinois ranks No. 119 in passing yards allowed on the season, and No. 110 in passing efficiency allowed. Those marks aren’t good, but the Illini have faced some pretty strong passing attacks this season with all six of their opponents ranking in the top 40 in passing offense.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Wisconsin Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

So, are their opponents hitting big passes because they’re playing Illinois? Or is Illinois struggling to defend because they’re playing good pass offenses? Well, I guess we’ll see this weekend when they take on a Wisconsin passing offense that has not been very good through the air. Something has got to give.

Despite the struggles, Graham Mertz showed some flashes last week and appeared to finally have settled in a bit. If he is able to play in that same fashion I feel a lot better about the trajectory of his play and the possibility of this offense improving. I know the numbers have been alarming, but I don’t think that is quite a true portrayal of what Mertz can be.

If he’s in there this week and not gun shy from his injury I think you could see a game where Mertz really throws it around to the variety of playmakers around him and gains some much-needed confidence.

Make their quarterback uncomfortable

At this point in the season, I think you have a good idea of what Wisconsin is going to do defensively. First, they’re going to take away any sort of run game you have with their front seven. Coming into this week Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in rushing defense and is top five in almost every single metric for defending the run. I don’t expect that to change at all here.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois USA TODAY Sports

If the run defense holds up as many expect it to then Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters is going to be put in third and long situations often. That is a win for Wisconsin, as Peters has struggled mightily throughout the season. Coming into this game Peters is completing just 49% of his passes and the average yards per completion is just 5.3 yards.

Essentially, Peters has tried to survive on short passes to move the chains, and the only way to do that is to have a run game set it up. If the run if stifled, I think you’ll see Peters having to throw in uncomfortable spots which should lead to incompletions or better yet, maybe some turnovers. So far this year Peters has thrown just one interception, but I think Wisconsin could be in a spot to pick a couple off if they can force Illinois to play behind schedule.

Settle In

This week the Badgers will play their first true road game, and I almost think it’s a blessing in disguise. Yeah, it’s nice to be at home, but I think this Wisconsin group could really benefit from being away from Camp Randall this week and I think fans could as well. This isn’t a knock on Memorial Stadium, it’s more so a reflection of the pressure that has been on this team.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Wisconsin was in the national spotlight once again and the pressure could certainly be felt. It’s one thing to be on the road and have fans against you, but it’s a completely different level of pressure to be at home and feel that same tension from the home fans.

I think the Badgers have a chance to be on the back burner of national college football news this week and they’ll be able to try to settle into a different environment. There is no doubt a homecoming Illinois crowd will be loud and raucous, but I think that will be a different type of pressure than feeling the groans of the home supporters.

At this point in the season, what’s done is done, so I hope we see this team can go out there and try to settle in and just play football. They’re better than what they’ve shown, and I think that starts to get proven this week.