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No. 25 Wisconsin at Illinois: Preview and Predictions

NO. 25 WISCONSIN AT ILLINOIS

The facts: 7 p.m. BTN, 560-AM.

The records: Wisconsin 4-2, 2-1 Big Ten; Illinois 3-2, 0-1.

The line: Wisconsin by 13½.

The story line: It’s probably too much to hope for that the refs will completely flub a late-game situation and hand Illinois a win on a silver platter. But the Illini at least have a road map to victory provided by Arizona State, which beat the Badgers 32-30 in Week 3 thanks, in enormous part, to a an infamous flub-platter dealio.

The run-oriented Badgers rushed for 231 yards in that game and piled up 441 total, but lost anyway. What they couldn’t do — in addition to getting the refs to spot the ball for a potential game-winning field goal — was stop ASU from feasting on their cornerbacks near the sidelines. Right there is Job 1 for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini offense: Get the ball outside the hashmarks to Ryan Lankford and his fellow receivers, and see if they can shine.

Understand this now: There is no chance Illinois will stop Wisconsin’s run game. Melvin Gordon and James White will dine on thick chunks of yardage. Maybe — just maybe — the Illini can hit the Badgers defense where it hurts enough to get to the fourth quarter and still be in the game.

Wisconsin’s D is dynamite down the middle, led by nose tackle Beau Allen and inside linebacker Chris Borland. Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young can forget about running the ball more than a little. Offensively, this one’s on Scheelhaase, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and the passing game.

Five predictions:

1. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen is more of a defense-oriented guy, but one of his clear offensive beliefs is to go for big plays. In 2012, Andersen’s Utah State team led college football with 18 offensive plays covering at least 50 yards. Care to guess which school was No. 2? It was Wisconsin, with 15.

The Badgers already have 12 such plays this season, second only to Baylor (15). This is a frightening combination of facts for an Illini defense that has been highly susceptible to big gainers. It all screams for at least one giant run by Melvin Gordon (9.7 yards per carry) and at least one play-action long ball from Joel Stave to Jared Abbrederis.

2. Wisconsin has rushing games of 393, 388 and 387 yards this season. If that sounds like obscene production, it is. The Badgers’ 1,168 yards in those three games alone exceeds the season rushing totals of 82 out of 123 FBS teams, including Illinois (879 yards in five games). The Illini aren’t about to yield a season high here, but can they hold UW under its 298.2 average? We’ll go with yes, but not by enough of a margin to turn the tables in this game.

3. Scheelhaase should be able to put up some big passing numbers, the No. 1 reason being the Badgers are run-of-the-mill pass rushers. Unlike in the Washington game, for example, when the Illini offensive front was overwhelmed by the Huskies’ defensive speed, Scheelhaase should have time to throw. Watch for several designed plays to move the pocket for Scheelhaase to give him extra time to throw or to tuck it and run.

4. Andersen lost patience with kicker Kyle French, and Wisconsin will go with Jack Russell in this game instead. You can forget about the Badgers attempting any long field goals unless they absolutely have to. Fourth-down defense will be a key for the Illini.

5. Illini linebacker Jonathan Brown’s career high in tackles is 17, set during a 2011 game against Ohio State in which the Buckeyes attempted only four passes. Brown probably won’t get to 17 against the Badgers — he’s averaging a Big Ten-best 12 this season — but the more tackles he has, the better. If Brown is making the stops, it’ll mean the defensive line is doing a good job of occupying UW’s blockers. If Brown is getting caught up in traffic, it’ll spell doom for a defense whose secondary doesn’t tackle well.

Greenberg’s pick: Wisconsin, 42-24.