Nov. 15, 2016
Wisconsin is officially done with the brutal stretch to start the Big Ten season. The Badgers finished the gauntlet at 4-2 and now the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers take on the 3-6 Illinois Fighting Illini for Homecoming. The Badgers are coming off a 21-7 win on the road against a game Northwestern team, which Wisconsin had not beaten in Evanston since 1999. Illinois held on for a 31-27 win against Michigan State in its last game. In last year’s meeting, Wisconsin’s starting quarterback Joel Stave was knocked out of the game and Bart Houston came in and led the Badgers to a 24-13 win in Champaign. The Badgers have won six consecutive games over Illinois. Wisconsin needs to avoid a letdown and I think Bucky will do just that. This team is too mentally tough, although no one would blame Wisconsin if it came out a little flat.
When Wisconsin runs the ball...
Wisconsin has ran the ball more effectively since the bye week. The Badgers have risen up to No. 58 in rush offense. Bucky has rushed for an average of 204 yards per game the last four games. I mentioned in the Northwestern review that the Badgers could have ran for 200 yards in three of the last four games, but Houston ran backward for 37 yards, so Wisconsin ended up with 190 yards rushing in Evanston. The offensive line is still not up to normal Wisconsin standards, but it is getting better. Illinois is 84th in the country and 11th in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 192 rush yards per game. The Fighting Illini have also allowed 23 rushing touchdowns, which is tied for 109th in the country. Corey Clement did not have a great yards per carry average against the Wildcats last Saturday, but he still gained 100 yards for the third time in four games. The workhorse is carrying the load for the Badgers offense. However, Wisconsin is getting production from backs other than Clement as well. Dare Ogunbowale was great against Iowa Nebraska. He had 61 total yards in Iowa City and had 120 yards on the ground and the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Cornhuskers. He had a silent game against Northwestern, but freshman Bradrick Shaw picked up the slack. Shaw had 11 carries for 54 yards against the Wildcats. The Badgers have a three-headed monster at running back and I assume we’ll see all three gets carries. Wisconsin should run for at least 200 this week.
When Wisconsin passes the ball...
Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston are still struggling passing the ball. Some of that is due to them always being placed in third-and-longs, but some of that is due to poor passes thrown by these two. Until someone takes the job and runs with it, the two-quarterback system is here to stay. The defenses seen in the next two weeks will not be a good as what the Badgers have seen throughout the Big Ten season so far, so that will help out the passing attack for Wisconsin. The Badgers need to get Troy Fumagalli more involved in the passing game. He is the one mismatch Wisconsin has against virtually any team it plays. The tight end only has one 50-yard receiving game since his 100-yard receiving day against LSU in the first game of the season. Illinois is in the top 50 in opposing pass yards per game, but No. 70 in opponents passer rating. Wisconsin is toward the bottom of the country in passing, so nearly every team would have the edge over the Badgers in this area. However, I do think Wisconsin makes a few plays through the air with Illinois crowding the line of scrimmage.
When Illinois runs...
Illinois is ranked No. 80 in college football in terms of rushing yards per game. However, the Illini are ranked 28th in the country in yards per carry at 5.2. The Illini have been able to bludgeon the bottom feeders on the ground, rushing for 707 yards and a 6.3-yard average against Michigan State, Rutgers and Purdue. Against Michigan, which has a comparable defense to Wisconsin, Illinois rushed 23 times for 77 yards. The Illini have three running backs with at least 57 carries, with junior Kendrick Foster as the leading rusher with 596 yards and seven touchdowns. All three running backs also average at least five yards per carry. Wisconsin tries to make the opponent one-dimensional. The Badgers have a tall order order to shut down the Illinois run game, but if they do, they will cruise to victory. Once again, Bucky will be without starting nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Even without the sophomore nose tackle, Wisconsin shut down Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who was second in the Big Ten in rushing going into the game. He was held to just 42 yards on 13 carries. They could not key in on just Jackson, either, as the Wildcats have one of the best receivers in the country, Austin Carr. Illinois does not have that sort of balance. The Badgers will key in on the Illinois rushing attack and make Jeff George, Jr. beat them. After the great performance against Jackson, Wisconsin moved up to fifth in rush yards allowed per game, giving up just 101.2 yards per game. Bucky will need to slow down Illinois’ running game or else it could be a nail biter.
When Illinois passes...
Wes Lunt, Illinois’ starting quarterback, is doubtful for the game. George will get the call once again for the Illini and he has done decent for being the No. 3 quarterback. He has just completed 42 percent of his passes in his three starts and has averaged just 130 yards passing per game. However, he has just one interception on the year, so he is good at taking care of the ball. If Wisconsin slows down the running game and forced George to beat them, this won’t be a competitive game. As a team, Illinois is ranked 113th in pass yards per game. The Badgers have played some solid quarterbacks this year and slowed them all down and they’re all better than George. Wisconsin is No. 30 in pass yards allowed per game with 201.6. However, Wisconsin is No. 10 in the country in opposing quarterback rating and have only allowed five touchdown passes so far. Illinois is one of the worst teams in third down conversion on percentage, while the Badgers are one of the best at it defensively. Illinois will not be able to survive having to go long distances on third down. Leading wide receiver Malik Turner missed the Michigan State game with a concussion, but will play this week. Turner has 35 receptions for 523 yards with four touchdowns. No other Illinois player has more than 16 receptions.
Illinois struggled in special teams a week ago, but they have a very solid field goal kicker. Chase MccLaughlin is 11-of-14 on the year, but he did miss a potential game-winning field goal against against Purdue earlier this season. The Illini are not getting much in the return game, so the Wisconsin coverage units need to keep it that way. Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti needs to build on his outstanding day last week. Illinois’ Ryan Frain is 83rd in the country in punting average, so neither are great in that area. Maybe Jazz Peavy can break a nice one like last week. The Badgers have had a punt return of 20+ yards in back-to-back games.
Wisconsin may have Illinois on the schedule, but its actual opponent is Wisconsin. If the Badgers don’t beat themselves, they should win handily. Clement should be able to get something going on the ground. The Fighting Illini struggle at consistently moving the football, and the Badgers are one of the top defenses in the nation. If George cannot beat Wisconsin through the air, Illinois has no shot. Illinois gives up nearly 30 points per game and while the Badgers struggle to put points on the board, they should be able to score more than their per game average against Illinois. After a grueling stretch, I expect the Badgers to come out sluggish and may even fall behind briefly. But they’ll be able to come back and eventually run away with the game. But I doubt Wisconsin covers the 26.5-point spread.
Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 10