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Wisconsin football: key matchup to watch vs. Illinois

The Wisconsin passing attack could play a vital role in determining the outcome against Illinois.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Eastern Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.

This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.

While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.

With the Badgers on the road for their first true road contest of the season against Illinois, there are plenty of potential matchups that could determine the outcome.

Given how poorly the Wisconsin offensive line played against Michigan, the way they account for Illinois’ Owen Carney Jr. who has 4.5 sacks in the past three games could be an easy choice, but I am instead going to shift this week to the UW receivers and how they matchup against the Illinois secondary.

Penn State v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The case for the Illinois secondary

The Illinois defense has played much better the past three games, including Big Ten matchups with Purdue and Maryland, but overall they have not been particularly strong this season. Defensively, they give up an average of 24.7 points and 417.3 yards on a per-game basis, which both rank near the bottom of the Big Ten. A primary reason for their shortcomings has been the play of their secondary.

Devon Witherspoon (No. 31) is a key defensive back for the Illini.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Five of the Fighting Illini’s top tacklers this season are in the secondary, which is usually not a great indicator of the unit's strength. Add in the fact that they currently rank No. 119 out of 130 FBS teams in passing yardage allowed at just shy of 300 yards per game, and they are a vulnerability for Illinois.

If Devon Witherspoon is able to return this weekend it could provide a nice boost for this group, but in general, they can be beaten. Their rush defense is much better, ranking No. 49 in the nation, and they have also shown the ability to get to the quarterback, so Wisconsin may look to attack Illinois through the air if Graham Mertz is healthy.

The case for Wisconsin’s wide receivers

With both Jake Ferguson and Jack Eschenbach, the Badgers top two tight ends, banged up entering this weekend’s game, Wisconsin might need to use more three-receiver sets against the Illini. Couple that with the inability to run the ball the past two games and UW’s wide receivers might be called upon to shoulder a big load on Saturday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So far this season the top-three of Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and Chimere Dike have each taken turns producing at a high level, but could this be a game where all three get going at the same time?

Davis leads the team in receptions and yards, including a 99-yard effort against Penn State in the opener, but he did not record a reception last week against Michigan. Fellow senior Kendric Pryor led all receivers in yardage against Notre Dame but was held to one reception against Penn State and to only 25 yards against Michigan. Chimere Dike had a breakout performance last weekend against Michigan but went without a reception against Notre Dame.

There has not been a consistent threat in this group so far this season, but there is talent. Dike could be the player to watch after a strong performance a week ago, but if Wisconsin wants to be at their best as an offense all three receivers need to be making an impact game in and game out.

I think this is a major opportunity for the receiving corps to make a statement and help jump start a struggling offense.