Week 8 Preview: Illinois

by Maxwell Brusky

Is it hard to believe the regular season for 2013 is to the midway point?  It always goes so darn fast!  For the Badgers, they’re probably one horrible piece of officiating (assuming Kyle French . . .) from a top 15 ranking and perhaps a blown coverage or two from a top 7 or 8 ranking.  Either way, at 4-2 and facing a remaining schedule that should have them favored in every game, some have them projected in a BCS bowl here and here as at-large at best and going to Florida on New Year’s Day at worst.  Frankly, how they can be unranked in the USA Today/Coaches Poll is quite beyond understanding.  This Saturday, they travel to Champaign to play Illinois under the lights.

THE STATE OF THE BADGERS

The Badgers are indeed coming off a solid victory, staking a legitimate claim as the second-best team in the Big Ten by drubbing then No. 19 Northwestern – without even playing particularly well on offense.  The defensive effort was superlative, racking up seven sacks (doubling their season total) and holding an offense that had been averaging 39 points and 474 yards per game to just 6 points and a meager 241 total yards.  UW’s offense scored 35 points and racked up 527 yards (286 rushing; 241 passing) against one of the conference’s largely middling defenses, which still managed to snag three turnovers.

Northwestern was down two key playmakers most of the way, but UW’s defense really appears to be hitting its stride.  A change to the safeties – moving Tanner McEvoy into a full-time safety role while moving Michael Caputo down to F-linebacker – began to pay off against Northwestern’s spread after a respectable start against Ohio State two weeks ago.  Dave Aranda’s varied pressures delivered on what was anticipated and the Badgers’ young secondary is growing up before our eyes – Sojourn Shelton still makes mistakes, but makes even more plays when the opposition decides to throw his way.  Oh yeah, and Chris Borland is truly an All-American, as if anyone doesn’t know that.

Chris Borland.jpg

UW’s offensive performance was quite good by the numbers, but quarterback Joel Stave must still make Andy Ludwig just scratch his head.  While his numbers were solid, 17 of 28 for 241 yards and three touchdowns, and he does deserve credit for finally trusting his other pass catchers after Jared Abbrederis went down, he still has issues with accuracy and seeing the more of the field.  Of course, he is still just a sophomore and game can be refined much further.

As a general proposition, UW is primed for the remainder of its regular season.  But for the placekickers (after shanking a 38-yarder in the second quarter, Kyle French lost his job AGAIN), the team continues to improve and regained any swagger that was lost in Columbus.  As it stands, UW fields a top 10 defense and top 15 offense, with an All-American candidate on each side of the ball.  The Badgers might well be starting on a roll that shouldn’t end until New Year’s Day – or maybe a day or two after New Year’s Day.

THE STATE OF THE ILLINI

Illinois enters Saturday’s game on a 15-game conference losing streak.  A far cry from Northwestern early-80s record of 34 league losses in a row, but that’s still pretty bad.  The streak started with the fall from 6-0 by Ron Zook’s 2011 team against Ohio State (with Braxton Miller completing one of just four passing attempts on the game) and continued through Tim Beckman’s first year and up to this year’s opening beatdown at the hands of Nebraska.  In spite of all that, teams that don’t totally suck looking to come off this kind of streak can be dangerous.

Illinois started the season with two wins over weak teams and looked to be one of the conference’s turn-around success stories.  With an admirable but flawed performance against a very good Washington team, all was not lost, and they then proceeded to clobber an awful Miami (Ohio) team at home. Then came Nebraska, which might have exposed the Illini’s early-season success as fool’s gold.

Nebraska’s young defense stepped up as it held the previously high-flyin’ Illini offense (478 yards and 40 points a game) to 372 yards and 19 points, most of which were in second-half garbage time.  New offensive boss Bill Cubit had been receiving accolades for turning around a unit that was downright poor in 2012, but against Nebraska, his guys fell far short of the mark.  They know they’ll have their hands full against the Wisconsin defense.

Illinois’ defense remains a work in progress and is just plain undermanned in both the line (dead last nationally with four sacks) and the secondary (dead last nationally with just one interception).  Again against weaker teams, the exposure was generally contained, but against real offenses (and real running games), the Illini simply folded.  Wisconsin’s rushing attack is at least equal and probably even better than those.  It is this kind of wilting performance on defense that has characterized the losing streak for the Illini.

Illinois is coming off its second bye and into a night game in Champaign – always a good environment for the home team.  However a balanced confident team probably isn’t what the doctor ordered for them to grab their first conference win in sixteen tries.  Should UW start off by putting Illinois in multi-score hole, a comeback is probably too tall a task for this Illinois team.

ILLINOIS IN BRIEF – PLAYERS TO WATCH

During Ron Zook’s tenure, Illinois generally didn’t lack for talent.  In fact, during that time, Illinois had more players drafted into the NFL during the upper rounds than any other team in the Big Ten.  Now, the only true legacy from those days (i.e., who will play on Sundays) is linebacker Johnathan Brown, who would get recognition beyond those who watch and analyze college football for a living if he played for a better team.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is talented and Illinois career has been a strange one.  Now a senior, he’s a good leader and remains a threat to make plays with his feet.  He’s been rejuvenated somewhat working with Cubit (who’s developed far lesser talents into MAC stars) and is a good fit for his offense, based as it is quick passes, quick tempo and multiple receiver sets.  Aside from Brown, Scheelhaase, who isn’t likely to crack an NFL roster, represents the apex of talent on this Illini team – a stark departure from the laundry list of high draft picks or undrafted free agents who’ve earned consistent paychecks in the pros.

Nathan Scheelhaase.jpg

Nevertheless, Wisconsin will have to account for running back Josh Ferguson, who’s emerged as both the team’s leading rusher and leading receiver.  Although Donovonn Young and Ferguson continue to split time in the backfield, Ferguson has been the more dependable and explosive of the two.  The line blocking for them came into the season more experienced than last year’s group, but doesn’t feature an all-league player at this point.

Illinois does have a solid set of receivers in Ryan Lankford, converted defensive back Steve Hull, Matt LaCosse, Spencer Harris, Martize Barr (leads group with 15 catches), and one-time quarterback and athlete Miles Osei.  Lankford and Hull have made some plays, and have 11 and 7 catches, respectively, on the season.  Tight ends Jon Davis and Evan Wilson are Zook-recruited talents that haven’t lived up to their billing for one reason or another.  Inasmuch as Cubit often uses three-tight end sets, a breakout game from either of them is possible at any time.

Brown headlines the best positional unit on the team, joined by sophomore Mason Monheim and junior Houston Bates; Monheim has all-league potential while Bates is just plain solid.  Tackle Tim Kynard leads the defensive linemen in tackles and can pose problems; the Illini also welcome back Teko Powell and perhaps Vontrell Williams from minor injuries, which bolster the depth.  In the secondary, Ernest Thomas III and Eric Finney are solid defensive backs, but as with the linemen, there’s not much star power on these levels of the defenses.

Justin DuVernois has all-league ability at punter and as he was against Nebraska, he should be busy on Saturday.  Taylor Zalewski is a decent kicker who hasn’t missed a PAT in 19 tries, but is only 5 of 8 on field goals. Illinois’ coverage and return units are average and there’s no stand-out return man like they’ve featured in the past.

THE MATCH-UP

When UW has the ball, expect Illinois to shade its linebackers and defensive backs against the run; Stave will have the opportunity to make them pay for this choice.  Brown and Monheim will make plays against the run, but UW’s solidified offensive line, along with its blocking tight ends, should be effective enough to open plenty of holes for Gordon and White.  As mentioned, good running offenses have been able to run almost at will on the Illini and Wisconsin should be no different.  Illinois might have caught the Badgers early enough last season to have kept the game close for the better part of three quarters; UW’s offense should be much more ready and able to impose its will this time around

Derek Watt.png

When Illinois has the ball, Andersen and Aranda will likely unleash even more havoc now that their players have become even more comfortable with their styles and schemes.  During the bye, Cubit will likely have installed more of his complex playbook and if Scheelhaase and his ball-handling players are able to execute it, UW’s defense could be challenged more sternly than it was last week.  On the other hand, Northwestern brought a better offensive line than Illinois will – and Nebraska was able to shut down Illinois’ offense almost completely its last time out.

Wisconsin comes into this game with confidence and reachable goals – the kind of slow starts that nearly doomed them the last two years against Illinois shouldn’t happen this time around, even if the game is at Memorial Stadium under the lights.  UW should come out strong and if they do, it will be a long night in Champaign for the home team and its fans.

PREDICTION

With so many seniors, on each side of the ball but especially on defense, UW shouldn’t be in jeopardy of a let-down game.  Abbrederis scheduled to play and Stave should be able to build on the trust he developed last week with the other receivers.  UW should be able to move the ball on the ground as it pleases once the blockers and runners figure out how to neutralize the Illini’s talented linebackers.  With these elements, the UW offense should have the run-pass balance it had last week.  If the Badgers are able to start quickly on offense, and I expect they will, UW’s defense should make it difficult for Illinois’ offense to respond sufficiently to stay in the game.  I see the Badgers taking this one comfortably, 38-10.

BONUSES FOR READING THIS FAR

After presiding over an offense that averaged just 17 points and 297 yards per game, Beckman replaced him with Cubit, who’s done far better with largely the same players, including quarterback Scheelhaase.

The all-time series between the teams is actually even, at 36-36-7.  Wisconsin has won 12 of the last 16 games between the two teams, which includes, in 1995, the last tie game in the Wisconsin record books.  From 1978 through 1992 however, the Badgers won only once in 13 tries.  In terms of Big Ten championships, Wisconsin’s 14 is one behind Illinois (15) and good for fifth place behind Minnesota (18), Ohio State (34), and Michigan (42).