Wisconsin's football team travels to Illinois for a Saturday matchup. It is a true juggernaut. Coach Bret Bielema has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal; reviewing their depth chart is like walking into a house of horrors for opposing journalists.
Most will talk about senior quarterback Russell Wilson (5'-11", 210) and junior running back Montee Ball (5'-11", 210) when talking about the Badger offense. But their success always begins with a fast and huge offensive line. For many years now, UW has attracted future NFL line stars to its campus to open holes for talented backs. A look at their current line proves the point.
Junior left tackle Ricky Wagner (6'-6", 320) replaces NFL draft pick Gabe Carimi this year, and there is minimal difference. The left guard is sophomore Travis Frederick (6'-4", 330). He's probably nicknamed "Tiny." Regular Peter Konz was injured last week, but UW expects soph Ryan Groy (6'-5", 320) will do fine in his stead. Seniors Kevin Zeitler (6'-4", 315) and high school All-American tackle Josh Oglesby (6'-7", 330) man the right side.
It is this line that allows Wilson to be the most relaxed quarterback in the nation. It is no wonder he has such a high passing efficiency rating at 201.6, yards per pass attempt at 11.1 and yards per play at 9.9, all of which tie or are ahead of national records. It no surprise he completed 16 of 17 passes last weekend versus Minnesota.
He rarely gets sacked or even rushed heavily, thanks to his offensive line. When he does throw, it is often on play-action. With defenses poised to stop the potent running attack, Wilson finds talented receivers open for easy receptions. And he has the quickness to be a running threat himself.
He has rushed 55 times for a net gain of 295 yards and 4 touchdowns. This is besides completing 160 of 218 passes for 2416 yards and 25 TDs with only 3 interceptions.
Ball is another in a long list of talented runners who have made a living off zone blocking schemes of dominant UW offensive lines. And he is ultra talented in his own right.
He leads the nation with 27 touchdowns (23 by rush), one score for every 7.4 times he touches the ball. He is averaging 124.2 yards per game in 10 games. He has also caught 14 passes for 234 more yards.
Ball's backup would start for many teams. Sophomore James White (5'-10", 195) has rushed 116 times for 611 yards and 6 TDs while catching 14 passes out of the backfield. And there are others waiting in the wings to become the next Badger superstar.
Wisconsin lines up as a typical Big 10 power running team, employing two tight ends and a fullback. Sophomore Jacob Pedersen (6'-4", 240) is tied for most touchdowns in the country by a tight end with 8. He has 27 catches for 323 yards. The other tight end is senior Jake Byrne (6'-4", 260). The bruising fullback is Bradie Ewing (6'-0", 245), who has caught 14 balls out of the backfield.
Some wonder why in the world great receivers would matriculate to Wisconsin, a running team. Maybe it's because defenses focus on the Badger running game and leave them one-on-one in the secondary. Whatever, their receivers are outstanding also.
Senior Nick Toon (6'-3", 220), a future NFL player, has caught 41 passes for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns. He is backed by sophomore Jeff Duckworth (6'-0", 215). The other receiver is 2nd in the country in punt returns, averaging 16.9 per attempt. Sophomore Jared Abbrederis (6'-2", 180) produces 125.7 all-purpose yards per game and has 40 receptions for 641 and 5 TDs. Soph Manasseh Garner (6'-2", 210) is his backup.
Wisconsin ranks in the top five nationally in scoring offense, but they also rank in the top five in scoring defense and top ten in total defense. There isn't much to fault there either. Eleven different players have combined for 22 sacks, and the UW defense hasn't permitted first downs on 39.8% of opponent possessions.
The defensive ends are senior Louis Nzegwu (6'-4", 255) and junior Brendan Kelly (6'-6", 255). Senior Patrick Butrym (6'-4", 285) and soph Ethan Hemer (6'-6", 300) play on the inside of the defensive line.
Linebackers Mike Taylor (6'-2", 230), a junior, and sophomore former walkon Chris Borland (5'-11", 245) are the top two Big 10 tacklers with 108 and 102 tackles respectively. Senior SAM Kevin Claxton (6'-1", 240) is no slouch either.
There is plenty of experience in the Badger secondary. Junior Marcus Cromartie (6'-1", 180) and senior Antonio Fenelus (5'-9", 190) line up on the corners. The safeties are junior Shelton Johnson (6'-0", 190) and senior Aaron Henry (6'-0", 210).
Any hope of the special teams struggling this year? Not on your life. Senior Brad Nortman enjoys a career 41.9 punting average. Senior place kicker Philip Welch missed 4 games with injury but is 3 of 4 on field goals since, including a 52 yarder. He is 2nd in school history in career field goal percentage and career field goals made. Abbrederis's punt return prowess was mentioned previously. He is joined by White returning kicks.
Like Illinois coach Ron Zook says, "They are two Hail Marys from an undefeated season and competing for a national championship." That is the task facing Illinois Saturday.