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Every Big Ten West team’s biggest recruiting battle before national signing day

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It seems like only yesterday that a Big Ten team was hoisting the national championship trophy, but we’re actually inching closer to the biggest day of the offseason — national signing day.

That means recruits are taking last-minute visits, coaches are crisscrossing the country to visit players and offers are going out on a nearly daily basis. To say these next few weeks will be crazy is a bit of an understatement, however the Big Ten is in on some major battles nationally and regionally as we head down the homestretch of the 205 recruiting cycle.

That means every team is putting out maximum effort to get the guys they want to sign to actually sign and fax in national letter of intent on the first Wednesday in February.

It also means that battles are heating up all over the country. Which battles are the Big Ten involved in? Let’s start by looking at the biggest battles for the Big Ten West.

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Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Badgers football

10 things to know about Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois and Wisconsin square off in the Illini’s homecoming game. Here are some interesting facts to know about the Badgers and Illini matchup

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It’s Homecoming in Champaign, where they claim to have formally started the tradition almost all colleges participate in these days. However, the Badgers are looking to spoil the Illini’s party and continue an undefeated start to the 2017 season.

While on paper this seems to be a big mismatch, what do the deep stats and tidbits about this series tell us?

Let’s look in to the 10 things to know about the Badgers vs. Illini for this Saturday’s contest.

 

1: Wisconsin is No. 1 in the Big Ten in run defense

This could be a big advantage for the Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Champaign. UW is giving up just 88 yards per game on the ground this season, which tops the Big Ten. Wisconsin is just one of two Big Ten and nine teams nationally giving up fewer than 100 yards per game. Only Alabama, Washington, TCU and Georgia are ahead of the Badgers in run defense so far this season. Meanwhile, Illinois comes in to this game dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 118.7 yards per game.

2: That is the number of quarterbacks Illinois have been using for most of the 2017 season.

For a large part of the season it was Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., but with a youth movement all over the field, last week the Illini took the training wheels off of true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas. After George struggled to start the game, Thomas came on in the hopes of sparking something. That didn’t really happen, as Thomas finished the game just 2 of 4 passing for 33 yards and an interception. He did add 79 yards on 10 carries on the ground, but he’s got to add something in the pass game if Illinois has a shot against the Badgers. However, George did finish last week 18-of-23 for 128 yards and one TD…so maybe the two-quarterback system could work going forward?

3: That is the number of times opponents’ drives that have started inside UW territory have resulted in a touchdown

Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar all season, but perhaps the most impressive part of what the Badgers are doing is their ability to come up big with their backs against the wall. Opponents have started in UW territory 10 times this season, with only three of those possessions ending in touchdowns. Last weekend, Maryland started at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line and got nowhere, settling for a field goal.

4: Illinois ranks 4th in the country in blocked kicks this season

If there’s a way for the Illini to change things up in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, a good way would be getting a turnover or something spectacular on special teams. One area that could be helpful to them is in their kick coverage teams, as they’ve blocked three kicks already this season and the Badgers have had a few blocked on them as well. Only Hawaii (5), Army (4) and Utah State (4) have more blocked kicks on the year. Illinois’ .43 kicks blocked per game rank fourth nationally, and you can bet they know UW has shown weakness in this area already this season.

5: That is the number of receiving touchdowns for UW wide receiver Quintez Cephus this season

After seeing early playing time as a freshman last year, there’s been no sophomore slump for Cephus. Instead, the Badgers have found a go-to wide receiver and a touchdown machine. Cephus leads the Badgers with five touchdowns on the year and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten for receiving touchdowns on the year. He’s only two off the lead shared by D.J. Moore of Maryland and Tyler Johnson of Minnesota. Cephus also leads the team with 25 receptions (tied with TE Troy Fumagalli) for 448 yards as well as the five touchdowns.

6: Illinois top running back averages 6.1 yards per carry, but will he play?

While the Illini offense has struggled to get going, one man jumped off the page early and that was true freshman running back Mike Epstein. He leads the team with 346 yards and has three touchdowns on the ground. Epstein has put up those numbers on just 57 attempts in five games played to date. But, he has missed the last two games and there’s been little word on if Epstein will be back in the lineup against the Badgers. If so, look for RaVon Bonner to be the main running back for the Illini.

7: It took just 7 games for UW freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to hit the 1,000-yard mark, tying the true freshman record for fastest to 1,000 yards in a season. 

Just how good has Taylor been? He cracked the 1,000-yard mark before 44 different FBS teams have even hit that mark. Taylor comes in to the Illinois game with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He’s first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, rushing yards and is the only Big Ten rusher in double digits on the TD front. Illinois run defense has been brutal all season, as Lovie Smith’s team ranks dead last in rush defense — giving up just over 210 yards per game to opponents. So, we have a massive advantage for Wisconsin’s run defense and offense. I’m sensing a pattern that may be established in this game.

8: Wisconsin is going for victory No. 8 in a row over the Illini on Saturday

UW currently owns a seven-game win streak in this series, including three straight in Champaign. Wisconsin’s former house of horrors has been kind for the most part recently, as the Badgers have won 5 of the last 6 games in Memorial Stadium as well. Illinois’ longest win streak in the series has been six games, but they led the overall series until the Badgers started this current win streak. Right now the series sits 40-336-7 in favor of the Badgers.

9: Illinois is converting on 90 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017

That’s an impressive rate on paper, putting the Illini third in the Big Ten in conversion rate on offense. However, the devil is in the details here, as only 10 of the 18 converted possessions have ended in touchdowns and the full six points. Illinois rate of 50 percent for touchdown conversions is 13th in the B1G, while the eight converted field goals puts the Illini second only to Michigan this season. Combine that news with the fact that Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert TD’s inside the red zone at 27.7 percent (tops in the Big Ten), and that’s another not-so-good news scenario for the hosts on homecoming.

10: Wisconsin is 10-1 in true road games under Paul Chryst

The Badgers’ lone loss on the road came against Michigan last season, a 14-10 decision. If you include neutral site games, the Badgers are an impressive 13-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium under Chryst. Illinois is not Michigan in terms of quality to say the least, but it should be worth noting that UW seems to have also played better on the road than at home so far this season as well. So far, the Badgers won 40-6 over BYU and 38-17 over Nebraska, breaking the Huskers’ 20-game night win streak inside Memorial Stadium.

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Badgers football

Every Big Ten West division team’s biggest question following spring football

Spring camps are finished, what questions remain for teams in the Big Ten West division?

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Michigan has arrived back in Ann Arbor, meaning spring football is finally and officially done across the Big Ten. College football’s annual rite of passage is also done, and there is plenty of curiosity to go around.

That means it is time to take stock of where things sit heading in to the summer workout sessions and the season ahead. It is also the perfect time to really dive deep in to what we did and didn’t see this spring.

Let’s start with the Big Ten West division, which had two new head coaches and another head coach with his first real spring camp in the books. Minnesota got the P.J. Fleck era under way and Purdue welcomed Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offensive attack to the division. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Love Smith finally got to run a full spring practice without rushing things.

Which teams answered questions, which ones have big-time questions to answer this fall? Let us take a look at every Big Ten West division teams’ biggest question post-spring football.

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Badgers football

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: Previews, predictions and prognostications

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When: Sat., Oct. 24; 3:30p.m. ET
Where: Champaign, IL; Memorial Stadium
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Wisconsin leads, 38-36-7
Last Meeting: Wisconsin 38-28 (2014)
Line: Wisconsin -6.5

The Badgers and Illini are the only two West Division teams with only one conference loss, but unfortunately for both, those losses came to the only undefeated team Iowa. Thus, this is an elimination game of sorts, as falling effectively three games behind the Hawkeyes probably ends title chances this season. Let’s count to 5 and determine which contender survives and becomes the primary chase to Iowa during the back half of the schedule!

1 Burning Question: Can either of these teams find a running game to complement a solid quarterback?

For years, Wisconsin has been a team that has built a reputation as a grinder, winning with dominant running backs and defense. While the defense has held up the usual standards in 2015, the running game has struggled thanks to Corey Clement’s injury and inconsistency from backups like Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale. Indeed, the Badgers currently sit a shocking 12th in the conference by running for only 154.6 yards per game.

As ineffective as Wisconsin’s rushing attack has been, Illinois is even worse. The Illini rank 13th in the conference with 137.5 yards per game rushing, with the best contributor being Ke’Shawn Vaughn thanks to injury problems by starter Josh Ferguson (UPDATE: Ferguson ruled out again for this game as well). The Illinois offense has therefore relied heavily on Wes Lunt and the passing game.

Likewise, Wisconsin is also led by a senior quarterback who has overcome adversity during his career to be in a good position now, that being Joel Stave. It’s clear that both teams will find openings in the passing game, even against defenses ready to stop it, but the team that discovers a running game should win this game and perhaps be in better position to make a run through the remaining schedule.

2 Key Stats

— 6. That’s the number of sacks Illinois has had in six games, by far the worst in the conference. In a game where the key to slowing Wisconsin’s offense will be shutting down Joel Stave, it would be nice to get pressure on a quarterback that struggles when such pressure is applied. However, the Illini defensive front has not been able to get off blocks against what appears to be worse lines than what Wisconsin brings to the field this Saturday. That does not bode well for Illinois to disrupt the most important Wisconsin weapon, the quarterback.

— 10.9. That’s the number of points Wisconsin gives up per game, which ranks 3rd nationally (behind only Michigan in the Big Ten). The only two teams to generate much offense at all against Wisconsin have been Alabama and Nebraska. Illinois has a decent offense, but it does not compare to what the Cornhuskers and Crimson Tide bring to the field. That means Illinois will likely struggle to reach its season average in points, and that’s problematic against a team as consistent as Wisconsin.

3 Key Players

Joe Schobert, Wisconsin LB — Following a 2014 season where Schobert achieved three sacks and 10.5 tackles-for-loss, this Badger linebacker has been an even more disruptive force in 2015. He currently ranks second in the conference with 9.5 sacks and second in tackles-for-loss as well with 14.5. With a pass-heavy offense on the docket this week, look for Schobert to have another big performance with the pass rush (and run contain) and perhaps take the lead in one of these statistical categories away from Carl Nassib at Penn State.

Geronimo Allison, Illinois WR — The best weapon Illinois and QB Wes Lunt has at his disposal is Allison, who has put up 601 receiving yards on 40 receptions this season. That leads the conference as far as receptions per game, and if he can find the end zone a bit more (only three touchdowns in 2015), then this team has a chance to knock off better teams like Wisconsin. If Illinois is going to defend the home field and win this game, Allison will need to be a big factor and perhaps get one or two scores against the Wisconsin defense.

Taylor Barton, Illinois SS — The Illini pass defense ranks in the top 25 nationally in yards per game as well as in pass efficiency rating, and a big part of that resurgence is the youngest member of the secondary, the junior Barton. This safety has generated three interceptions and has 3 other pass break-ups on the season, and he’s been good at assisting other members of the secondary to stop big plays from the opposition. Of the Illini defenders, Joel Stave cannot afford to lose track of Barton, or else a big mistake may swing this game into the Illini’s favor.

4 Bold Prognostications

Wisconsin rushes for 100 more yards than Illinois: Thanks to the efforts of a strong linebacker crew including Vince Biegel, Chris Orr, as well as Schobert, Wisconsin boasts one of the most effective rushing defenses in the country. Illinois is not quite as good against the run, which is why I think this is a game where Wisconsin goes “old school” and forces Illinois into submission with the rushing attack. While also completely shutting down any combination of Ke’Shawn Vaughn and other backs who carry the load this weekend.

Illinois generates a special teams touchdown: Clayton Fejedelem and Marchie Murdock both have a punt return touchdown this season, while V’Angelo Bentley ranks 21st nationally by averaging 11.6 yards per punt return. Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer averages 35 yards net per punt and therefore doesn’t outback his coverage much, but this still has the makings of a game where the Illini make a big play in special teams. That type of play could ignite whatever crowd is present in Champaign and make for a raucous environment, well, as raucous as Memorial Stadium gets.

Both teams will turn the ball over in the red zone: These are two of the worst teams in the Big Ten at red zone efficiency, with Wisconsin coming in at 80.6 percent and Illinois even lower at 70.8 percent. Although Illinois has yet to turn the ball over in this part of the field, Wisconsin has had a couple critical turnovers. Expect both teams to be forcing the issue and trying for touchdowns, which in a swirling wind day in Champaign could lead to duck-like passes that go for interceptions at the most back-breaking time.

Wes Lunt passes for 300 yards but Illinois still loses: As noted above, I expect Wisconsin to completely shut down the Illini rushing attack. That, plus n early lead for Wisconsin, will force Illinois into a pass-first type of offense even more so than usual. Despite Wisconsin’s good defensive statistics, Wes Lunt is the type of quarterback who will have time to make good reads and carve up the Wisconsin secondary at times. Wisconsin will stop most of these from going for scores, and that will make the difference as Illinois fails to turn most of those big passing yard drives into points.

5 Staff Predictions (overall season record; record against the spread)

Andy: Wisconsin 38-17 (61-14 overall; 33-41 ATS)
Dave: Wisconsin 31-17 (61-14 overall; 40-33 ATS)
Greg: Wisconsin 30-13 (55-20 overall; 43-30 ATS)
Matt: Wisconsin 34-17 (59-16 overall; 45-28 ATS)
Phil: Wisconsin 21-17 (16-6 overall; 8-11 ATS) *joined in Week 5

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