When: Sat., Oct. 24; 3:30p.m. ET
Where: Champaign, IL; Memorial Stadium
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