Preview & Pick: Illinois at No. 7 Wisconsin

Illini aim to spoil Wisconsin's playoff bid and to earn first win in Madison since 2002

Illinois (3-6, 2-4 B1G) at No. 7 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 B1G)

Time: 2:30 p.m. CT

TV: ESPN2 -- Allen Bestwick (play by play) and Mike Bellotti (analyst)

Series: Wisconsin holds a slim 39-36-7 all-time series advantage, but the Badgers have dominated lately, winning 10 of 11 against the Illini and five straight in Madison.

Vegas betting line: Wisconsin (-26)

Last week: Wisconsin won at Northwestern 21-7; Illinois beat Michigan State 31-27 at home

Numbers to know

3: Wins over top-10 ranked opponents (at the time) this season by Wisconsin, making them the first Big Ten team to beat three top-10 ranked teams since Michigan in 2003.

5: Runs of 50-plus yards by the Illini this season: three by Kendrick Foster, one by Ke'Shawn Vaughn and one by Reggie Corbin.

7: Pass break ups by Illini junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap during the last two games, tied for the most in the nation over a two-game stretch this season.

13.8: Points per game allowed this season by Wisconsin, the third lowest mark in the country. Wisconsin has allowed just 16.4 points per game since the 2013 season, the second-lowest mark in the FBS, trailing only Alabama (15.4 ppg).

15: Consecutive bowl-eligible seasons for Wisconsin, the sixth longest streak in the nation behind LSU (16), Oklahoma (17), George (19), Virginia Tech (23) and Florida State (34).

25: Combined passes defended between Wisconsin cornerbacks Derrick Tindal and Soujourn Shelton, tied for the most passes defended of any pair of FBS teammates.

26: First-time starters this season for Illinois, tied most in the nation with Missouri.

26.5: Combined tackles for loss this season between Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, which is the most for any duo in the FBS.

101.2: Rush yards per game allowed by Wisconsin's defense, which leads the Big Ten.

Badgers to watch

Houston, a 6-foot-4 senior, came on in relief of Joel Stave last season and completed 27 of 33 passes for 232 yards to lift the Badgers to a 24-13 win in Champaign. Houston started the first three games this season, but has been replaced by Hornibrook, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman. But neither has been especially effective and Paul Chryst has rotated the quarterbacks the past three games -- which has caused some rhythm issues. Hornibrook (57.3 completion rate, six touchdowns, seven interceptions) is a true pocket passer, while Houston (62.1 completion rate, three touchdowns, three interceptions) can run some zone-read option.

The senior running back has rushed for 100-plus yards in three of the last four games. Wisconsin is 11-1 when Clement runs for at least 100 yards.

The 6-foot junior wideout leads the Badgers and has set career highs with 31 receptions for 481 yards and three touchdowns.

The 6-foot-6, 248-pound junior tight end has 31 catches for 369 yards and a touchdown this season.

The junior 3-4 outside linebacker converted from tight end prior to the start of the 2015 season and now leads the Badgers with 9.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks.

The senior cornerback has three interceptions and 10 pass breakups on the season. His 13 passes defended rank tied for sixth among FBS players.

The senior conerback ranks tied for 12th in the FBS with 12 passes defended (two interceptions and 10 pass breakups).

Illini in the spotlight

The former third-string quarterback continues to sit in this spot as he's likely to make his fourth straight start on Saturday. Jeff George Jr.'s stats aren't that great. He has a 42.3 completion rate, is averaging just 130.3 passing yards per game during his three starts and has a passer efficiency rating under 100 (98.8). But George Jr. has shown a "gamer" quality and toughness that has won him some fans (along with his famous name). George Jr. missed several deep throws against Michigan State, though his receivers didn't help him. But Garrick McGee showed confidence in the gradually improving freshman quarterback by airing it out in the fourth quarter, including a 3-for-3 for 42 yard performance on the game-winning drive.

"(What has changed) is feeling comfortable, the comfortability out there," George Jr. said. "Every game you learn more and become more confident. I feel like this past game I was really able to be more myself and just have fun. Because that's the name of the game. It's a game at the end of the day, and just having fun seeing everybody jump around and be excited is quite the thing."

With the Illini thin at receiver due to injury, someone had to step up. Sophomore Sam Mays has a high ceiling due to his length and athleticism. After a year and a half, we finally started to see it. Mays set career highs in receptions (four) and receiving yards (39) in Saturday's win against Michigan State and hauled in the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes. Illini offensive coordinator has labeled him "Baby Malik" due to his physical similarities to junior Malik Turner, who is recovering from a concussion. Whether Turner plays or not at Madison, Illinois needs Mays to continue to emerge.

"He did a good job for most of the game," McGee said. "He made the plays that he needed to make. Obviously a huge one to score at the end of the game. But there's a catch on the sideline on the play on the sidelines on that play right before halftime that he kept his feet in bounds. Third-down conversion on an out route, I really wish he could've broke a tackle and got more yards. but he was really confident throughout the game. I think he built confidence throughout the game, which will be good for us."

The turnstile of cornerbacks at the No. 2 spot opposite Dunlap may have stopped spinning after the coaching staff gave redshirt fershman Cameron Watkins earned his first true opportunity. The fast, long and physical cornerback had a strong spring and start of fall camp, but injuries limited him earlier this season. But even in a small stint on Saturday, he established himself as by far the best option at a No. 2 spot that has been picked on by opposing offenses. Watkins made some big hits and broke up a pass against Michigan Statee. He may make mistakes, but so were the other cornerbacks behind him. He just brings a much higher play-making upside.

"I thought Cam brought a different level of physicality that we had missed a little bit at the corner position opposite Dunlap," Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "He stepped in and played really well for us."

Keys to the game

1. Continue run defense progress: The Illini run defense has made strides the last two and a half games. They "contained" Michigan to 4.6 yards per rush, held Minnesota to 3.6 yards per rush and Michigan State to 4.1 yards per rush. That's not great run defense (like Wisconsin, which allows 3.3 yards per rush), but it's competitive and an improvement over the big chunks they were giving up earlier this season. The emergence of hard-hitting safeties Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green as well as sophomore linebacker Tre Watson, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, has helped. Redshirt freshman cornerback Cameron Watkins also showed some physicality last week. Freshmen defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson also have made strides but have a bigger challenge this week against Wisconsin's developing but physical offensive line. Hold the Badgers under their season average of 4.0 yards per rush, and the Illini will have a chance.

2. Win the turnover margin ... bigly: To pull off an upset against a top-10 team in Madison with a limited offense, the Illini are going to have to win the turnover battle by a wide margin. That means the offense needs to take care of the ball well, like it did against Michigan State (zero turnovers) and unlike it did against Minnesota (four turnovers). The Illini defense also must make more plays on the ball. The Illini forced three fumbles against Michigan State, a good sign, but only recovered one. The Illini have forced 13 turnovers this season, but eight of those came in two games (five against Rutgers and three against Murray State). The defense likely needs to force multiple turnovers (and possibly score on one) to have a chance at the upset on Saturday.

3. Control the clock better: Looking at the stat sheet from last week's game at Michigan State, it's difficult to understand how the Illini won the game, especially considering Illinois had the ball for just 18 minutes, 24 seconds. The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in time of possession (26:21), while Wisconsin ranks second in TOP (34:20). Wisconsin's defense is elite (allowing just 16.1 first downs per game), while Illinois has the conference's worst first-down offense (14.9). But Garrick McGee must find a way to keep his offense on the field longer to give the defense more of a breather on the sidelines.


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Illinois feels a lot better after a win. They should. Beating the defending Big Ten champion and last year's College Football Playoff participant -- no matter how much they are struggling this year -- is a big win for this Illini program. The Illini are making strides and finally got the win to prove that to themselves and outsiders. The defense is playing competitive Big Ten football, and Jeff George Jr. has brought some fire -- though not great production -- to the offense.

But the schedule hasn't provided the Illini much of an opportunity to string together wins. The Illini followed their Rutgers win (which should have followed a Purdue win, but I digress) with a trip to No. 3 Michigan. They now follow a win over Michigan State to No. 7 Wisconsin.

Paul Chryst was the perfect fit at Wisconsin and has kept the Badgers among the Big Ten's elite and the nation's most consistent programs. He probably still must find and develop the dynamic quarterback to make the Badgers a truly elite threat for the national championship, but Chryst has kept the Badgers ball-control physical offensive identity. But this team's current identity is on defense, and it has remained an elite group despite several key injuries and the loss of defensive coordinator (and likely future power-five head coach) Dave Aranda to LSU. First-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has kept Aranda's 3-4 physical, confusing defensive identity and had great success.

The Badgers' offense isn't great though, so if the Illini defense does its job, this game could stay within striking distance. But the offense has to make plays. And given great teams' struggles against Wisconsin (Michigan scored 14 points against UW, while Ohio State scored 23 in an overtime win against UW), the Illini offense may be a long-shot to score double-digit points.

Wisconsin 24, Illinois 7

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