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Wisconsin Football: Keys to Victory vs. Illinois State

What do the Badgers need to do to start strong on Saturday?

Iowa v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers open their season Saturday night in Camp Randall Stadium, taking on the Illinois State Redbirds. Yes, after months of waiting the season is finally upon us. This year, Wisconsin’s schedule starts out much lighter than 2021, but its still vital for the Badgers to come out strong and start to build on the many changes that have taken place with this team over the course of the off-season. What do the Badgers need to do to build confidence to start the season and come away with a victory? Let’s take a look.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Nebraska at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Establish A Big Lead By Halftime

I know you’re probably snickering to yourself. Maybe you’re thinking “Establish an early lead? Yes, that’s the idea. It’s Illinois State, an FCS School my guy. We’re going to roll these guys over.” You obviously don’t have any Northwestern fans as friends; I actually commend you for that. But in 2016 the Wildcats were embarrassed by the Redbirds in front of their home fans in a low-scoring loss 9 to 7.

“So?” you say to yourself. “They’ve got lucky once against a garbage Northwestern team.” Well, if they did get lucky they’ve been lucky more than once. The Redbirds are 2-2 against their last 4 FBS opponents. They defeated Colorado State on the road 35-19 in 2017. In both, their wins over FBS opponents Illinois State was leading their opponents going into the half.

The previous two FBS opponents to defeat the Redbirds didn’t let the Redbirds get a lead going into the half. Northern Illinois almost became victim number three in 2019 before turning it on in the final quarter to run away with a 24 - 10 victory. Meanwhile, in 2021 the Western Michigan Broncos got out to a two-score lead before halftime and didn’t look back. Defeating Illinois State in a shutout 28 - 0.

The Badgers have the ability to get out to an early lead by halftime and would likely want to try and put this game away by halftime to allow others some reps. Wisconsin has the quality on both sides to physically wear down the Redbirds, but that’s what Northwestern and Colorado State thought too. Traditional Wisconsin ground and pound should shut down any hopes for another miracle upset over a Big Ten opponent for Illinois State. Don’t let them hang around Badgers, the longer they do, the more confident they become.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Show potential in the new look passing game

Wisconsin has never been a team known for the passing game. Yes, Wisconsin has had linemen who can guarantee good protection for a quarterback’s progression but generally, Wisconsin is a ground-and-pound team. They always have been. New offensive coordinator Bobby Engram says they don’t always have to be. Engram is expanding the Badger's offense to include a more balanced air and ground attack.

The run game should always open up the opportunity to execute through the air but Wisconsin has never seemed to find the right combination of coaches, players, and opportunity to make a regular threat out of it. The Badgers have the personal in Graham Mertzwho enters his third year taking snaps. Braelon Allen will be entering his second year as a starter. The wide receivers group is young but hungry to take advantage of what Engram’s offense could open for them.

Engram has said that he wants the running game to still be the star but that he also wants his running backs involved in catching passes both out of the backfield and deeper routes. We’re also expected to see a lot of motion, play action opportunities, and maybe even flooding the zone once in a while. It’s dangerous to have expectations. We trust you, Bobby, just keep defenses guessing. The cameraman better be ready because, according to players, Engram is pushing the offense to use the whole field and spread the defense out by respecting the pass.

If there are any kinks still to be worked out for Engram and his new offensive scheme they need to happen against the Redbirds. This is the team and the time to test the waters of this new aerial attack. If Wisconsin can have success through the air against the Redbirds it not only should help rack up points earlier but it should be a good indicator of the new potential for a two dimensional team going forward.

Wisconsin v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Wisconsin’s defense needs to flex its muscles

Yes, the Badgers need to score points. Yes, some of those points need to come from the passing game. But more importantly, Jim Leonard and the Badger defense need to show it can reload after losing multiple starters from last year’s group. It’s almost a complete restructure in the secondary, and there are new voids to fill in with the linebacker group, not to mention the loss at the line.

The Badgers have started to solidify a reputation for building strong defenses out of inexperienced groups. So there’s nothing new here for Leonard as far as hurdles to overcome. It’s his players that will have to follow through with the same surgical precision executed by previous classes.

Safety Hunter Wohler is one of the most intriguing new faces as he finally gets to start after years of anticipation at the high school level. There’s a lot to be said for earning a starting job early in your career and I look forward to seeing Wohler come out and make his presence known. The Badgers' two transfer defensive backs and safety Jay Shaw and Kamo’i Latu have allegedly made some big plays in training camp as well. Enough to earn Shaw a start and Latu a chance to be a part of Leonard’s rotation at the safety position.

Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton are expected to show their leadership with the linebackers and line. Benton’s physical ability at the line to be a brick wall for any back trying to break through could be huge for Wisconsin this year. WIsconsin’s defensive end line is deep this year with big expectations for Mullens as a senior and Johnson after a strong showing in camp. The Badgers' linebacker group has enough depth to take advantage by using a heavy rotation to keep them from getting too worn down and out.

Overall, this defense needs to come out and make a statement that they are just as strong as they have been in years past, and the opportunity to do so starts Saturday night.

Camp is over, it’s game time. Expectations have built up and coaches have been quoted saying it was a strong and unified Spring and Fall. Just like the song goes...

“So build me up (Build me up) Buttercup, don’t break my heart”

On WIsconsin! Let’s start with a strong showing against the Redbirds and get the momentum rolling into week two. Wisconsin’s schedule is much lighter to start this year, but Ohio State is just 4 weeks away...