1. Wisconsin is a threat to win the Big Ten Championship.
This was known before the weekend, of course. Wisconsin is the best two-loss team in the country. It lost seven-point games to Michigan and Ohio State. Its defense is elite, full of stout run-stuffers, potent pass rushers and physical, play-making defensive backs. The running attack has greatly improved the last month with a maturing, physical offensive line and stable of good running backs. The Badgers were expected to struggle this season, but Paul Chryst has proven to be the perfect fit to keep that program elevated among the Big Ten's elite and his hire of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has kept the defense elite despite the loss of a great coordinator (Dave Aranda) and several injuries.
“You have to give the University of Wisconsin all the credit as much as anything,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said after the Badgers rolled Illinois 48-3 on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. “We’ve played some good football teams this year. That’s definitely one of the best we played.”
The Badgers should roll at Purdue next week and should wrap up the Big Ten West the following weekend at home against Minnesota. That sets up a likely rematch with Michigan or Ohio State, though Penn State also could sneak out a Big Ten East title if all falls right. Regardless, the Badgers have proven already that they are a worthy almost equal opponent to any team that comes out of the East. Win out, and the Badgers should be in the College Football Playoff.
2. Jeff George Jr.'s time as a starter may have come to an end.
I wrote three weeks ago that Jeff George Jr. likely wasn't the long-term solution at quarterback for Illinois. I admit that may seem premature following his first career start – at Michigan. And there are certain things I really like about George Jr., especially his mental toughness and the fire he adds in the huddle. His teammates respond to him.
But watching him the past two years in practice, I just never saw consistency. Sure, there were some flashes of brilliance where he'd show off that big arm or thread the needle on a pass – but those were the exceptions not the rule. Plus, he had no other big offers out of high school, that he was the fourth stringer in the spring (behind Wes Lunt, Chayce Crouch and Jimmy Fitzgerald) and that he isn't much of a threat to run. But I was curious to see how George Jr. would progress. Like at practice, he had some bad moments (Minnesota fumbles) mixed with some intriguing flashes (fourth quarter against Michigan State). But Saturday may have marked his last chance as a starter.
The Illini offense finished the game 0-for-9 on third downs and was on the field for just 17 minutes and 57 seconds. Lovie Smith didn't want to bench George Jr. -- who now has a 40.4 completion rate through 94 passes -- knowing what that can do to a quarterback's psyche and confidence. Illinois planned to only use Lunt in an emergency situation on Saturday. The Illini stuck with George Jr. through two interceptions, then three. But after his fourth picked-off pass of the first half, the Illini felt they had no choice but to make a move. Lunt replaced him for the second half.
“Jeff would like to have some of those balls back, the decisions we made on some of them,” Smith said. “You know when you pull a guy, it’s tough when you do that. You always want to give a quarterback a chance to come out of it, but we never did.
“The reason we played Wes is we needed a boost. We needed something to change. We needed to change courses with what we were doing offensively. It wasn't about rust or anything like that. That's how we look at it always. The best guy who gives us the chance to have success.”
A source within the program told me last week that the plan was to get Lunt ready for the Iowa game. And, yes, the staff feels Lunt gives them a better chance to win. The offense struggled with him under center in the second half and the offense struggled with him earlier this season, but he is more accurate and takes care of the ball. He's thrown 10 interceptions in 25 games with Illinois. George Jr. threw four interceptions in about 10 minutes on the field Saturday. But Lunt must give his team energy and make a few big throws. It appears he'll have one last chance to leave a positive impression on the program and fans.
George Jr., meanwhile, may face an uphill battle for another career start (assuming Lunt starts the final two games). Chayce Crouch provided more of a spark and his running ability gives Illinois' offense a much-needed dynamic. But his shoulder injury could keep him out this spring, giving George Jr. more reps. Who will he share them with though? Illinois undoubtedly will add a transfer (junior college or grad transfer), who will likely have a better chance at the starting job than George Jr.
3. Illinois needs more Wisconsin-like maulers on the offensive line.
Saturday made it even more apparent. Illinois has three seniors on the offensive line who did a solid job in Bill Cubit's spread, zone-run-heavy scheme. But it's more of a finesse group (though Christian DiLauro has some nasty streak in him). The Illini simply need and want more Wisconsin-like roadgraders who can simply win one-on-one physical battles. Redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti has had a breakout season and fits the bill on the interior. Redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson was benched after struggling with inconsistency, but he has the mix of strength and athleticism the Illini need more of in their group. Plus, Wisconsin's offensive line was redshirt freshman heavy last season and has taken a big leap. Expect Megginson to take similar strides to them and Allegretti next season. The Illini are adding some big beef up front in 2017. St. Louis Trinity Catholic commit Larry Boyd (who has a physical, Big Ten-ready body) likely will start right away, and Vederian Lowe adds a 6-foot-5, 340-pound frame to the OL room as well. The Illini will add at least two more offensive line recruits – Howard Watkins, Preston Mixon and Joshua Fedd-Jackson are high on their prep wish list, and they could add a junior college target – but all have similar physical makeups: physical and big. Good. Illinois needs more of both traits.
4. The Illini run defense took a step back.
The Illini run defense had played pretty competitive football the last three weeks. Michigan ran for 4.6 yards per carry – not a great number for the defense – but for Illinois versus Michigan it wasn't a bad number. The Illini then held Minnesota – a really good rushing attack – to 3.5 yards per carry and Michigan State to 4.1 yards per carry. Those are the numbers of a competitive Big Ten run defense. But Wisconsin absolutely plowed over Illinois for 5.7 yards per rushing attempt. Bradrick Shaw was 20 rushing yards away from the Badgers having three players with 100-plus rushing yards. Illinois couldn't get off the field (Wisconsin was 7-for-13 on thid downs and controlled the clock for 42 minutes and three seconds).
The Illini missed redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan missed the game as he goes through the concussion protocol. He has been the Illini's best defensive tackle, which is a positive and a negative. Seniors Chunky Clements and Rob Bain haven't made as big of an impact as the Illini have needed this season. Clements has been inconsistent, while Bain hasn't played much (possibly due to injury and possibly due to scheme fit). The Illini really struggled to get penetration up the middle, but even defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips struggled, along with the linebackers, to set an edge against the Badgers run game. Wisconsin simply man-handled the Illini front seven.
“We were dominated by a better team,” Smith said. “There was nothing really good that we did out there today.”
5. One more win can wash away some of this bad taste.
The worst loss to Wisconsin since 1961 certainly chilled any good vibes from last week's 31-27 win over Michigan State. No one thought the Michigan State game was some arrival for Illinois. The Spartans surprisingly are one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this season, and Illinois still remains so. But the Wisconsin loss is just one loss – to a top-10 team.
It's unlikely, but Illinois can still back in to a bowl with back-to-back wins against Iowa – the Hawkeyes (6-4) had a huge 13-11 win over No. 3 Michigan on Saturday – and Northwestern (5-5). Again, that seems very unlikely. But one more win against either rival could give Illinois a big confidence boost and recruiting boost heading into December. Despite Iowa coming off a huge win, their offensive struggles make the Hawkeyes seem like a more beatable opponent for Illinois – especially with the game at home.
“We didn't play our best ball today,” Smith said. “You don't judge things … at the the end of the season, you put it all together. It's an individual Saturday is what you look at. Today, we didn't get the job done. We played bad ball today. The week before we played good ball. If I were a betting man, I'd say that this week we''re going to come back against Iowa this week at home and play more like we thought we'd play today.”