Wisconsin @ Illinois: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday with the Illini looking to show any sign of improvement when they welcome Wisconsin to Memorial Stadium. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn breaks down the Wisconsin Badgers in this game preview.

Ron Zook probably never dreamed it would be like this. Sixty-three to 10? Penn State's good, but 63-10? Now comes the hardest part. He has to convince his team to not quit and that better days are ahead. That notion may seem like some kind of dream considering they're about to get their mouths bloodied once again this week. Yes, the Illini are young, but that can no longer be an excuse. Zook's biggest - and hardest - job will be to remove the losing attitude that has permeated this football team. They have lost all confidence and once things go against them they let it snowball. Rashard Mendenhall, Derrick McPhearson, and (hopefully) Isiah Williams provide hope for the future, so, while it may be hard, we Illini fans need to be patient. It looks like a longer rebuilding project than expected. Here's hoping they give Wisconsin a battle this week, although that's a long shot. The Illini did beat a good Rutgers team (whoa - did I just say that?!?!) and outplayed Cal for three quarters. But since Michigan State, it's been the same old story. Unfortunately, that story will add another chapter this week.

Head Coach
Barry Alvarez probably can sympathize with Ron Zook, as he himself once took over a moribund program, and to his credit, he has turned it into one of the Big Ten's best. He left a cushy gig as defensive coordinator of Notre Dame after the 1989 season and suffered through a 10-loss season in his head coaching debut. Now, he has overseen a program that has played before a home crowd of at least 70,000 for 80 straight games. Alvarez and Woody Hayes are the only coaches in league history to win at least three Rose Bowls, and he has coached the five winningest teams in Wisconsin history. His back-to-back league titles in 1998 and 1999 had not happened at UW since 1896-97, and the Rose Bowl wins following each of those seasons has never been duplicated. He and UAB's Watson Brown are the only two head football coaches who double as their schools athletic directors, although Alvarez is ceding his coaching duties to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema after this season. With a 7-1 (4-1 in conference) start, he looks like he'll being heading upstairs in grand style. A win this week will be the 11th time the Badgers have won at least eight in a season since 1946. Ten of those seasons will have come under the watch of Barry Alvarez. Now, that's getting it done.

Offensive Preview
The Badgers are on the verge of finishing with the most prolific offense in school history. Through eight games, they are averaging 39.5 points per game, which is on the pace to overtake the previous record of 34.1 ppg set in 1999. Leading the way is another in a long line of dominant tailbacks that have thrived under Alvarez and his smash-mouth style. While one-time Colorado Buffalo Brian Calhoun is not the between-the-tackles runner that Ron Dayne was, he's still a chain mover, with his 127.6 ypg being seventh best nationally, and his 16 TDs are second best in the country. On top of that, he is tied for the team lead with 34 receptions. The fella he's tied with is record-setting WR Brandon Williams. Last week against Purdue, Williams became the school's all-time leading receiver with 177 catches, surpassing Lee Evans' 175. He also became the first Badger receiver to record at least 500 receiving yards in four seasons. His talent is not limited to catching the football, either. He averages 31.0 yards per kickoff return and 17.2 per punt return, not to mention the two punts he's taken back for scores. Opposite of Williams is Jonathan Orr who leads the team with six TD grabs and ranks ninth on the UW charts with 1,551 career receiving yards. The tight end is converted quarterback Owen Daniels, who has 14 catches on the season along with three TDs, all of which came in a 65-0 thrashing of Temple on September 10. He may someday be seen on a TV news team near you, as he's majoring in atmospheric and oceanic studies and has given a weather forecast on the local Madison ABC affiliate.

Directing this potent attack is junior John Stocco, who is 16-4 as the Badgers starting QB. He has matured a ton since last year, and, aside from his tremendous ability to hand the ball off, now is flashing the ability to hurt opposing defenses through the air. His 23 career TD strikes rank sixth in the Bader record book, and of his 14 TD throws this season, 10 have come in the last four games. He's not a statue in the pocket either, as his last minute QB draw vs. Michigan helped send Badger fans to State Street in a drunken frenzy. On the year, he's throwing for 204.1 ypg and completing over 60% of his passes. His protectors up front have allowed him to be sacked 18 times, but left tackle Joe Thomas was recently named a Sports Illustrated Mid-Season All-American and C Donovan Raiola is on the watch lists for both the Rimington Trophy (best center) and Lombardi Award (top lineman).

Defensive Preview
The Badgers defense, led by head-coach-to-be Bret Bielema, has hardly been a juggernaut through eight games, as they have yielded 412 ypg and 24.5 ppg. These numbers were not helped in the least by the 51-point, 674-yard shredding handed to them by Northwestern three weeks ago. The one thing the Badgers defense has going for it is a penchant for forcing turnovers. They have forced 13 miscues over the past four games, and their +7 turnover margin is second in the Big Ten. Last week vs. Purdue they forced five and for the first time under Alvarez returned two picks for TDs. DBs Roderick Rogers and Jack Ikegwuonu were the opportune ones and each are tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece. Rogers leads the Big Ten in passes defended (1.38 per game), and had three against the Boilers to add to his lead. Former Wheaton-Warrenville star Brett Bell has broken up six passes on the year and forced a fumble last week.

While lacking a dominant pass-rushing force like the departed Erasmus James, the Badgers still are able to get to the quarterback. They have recorded 16 sacks on the year which is tied for third best in the league, although no one has more than 2 ½. DLs Nick Hayden and Kurt Ware are tied for the team lead, although twelve different defenders have at least one-half of a sack on the season. Replacing an entire front four is never easy, and of the four new starters along the front line two (Mike Newkirk, Matthew Shaughnessy) are freshmen and one (Hayden) is a sophomore. Newkirk made his first career start last week and registered six tackles and a forced fumble. Shaughnessy also made six stops (a career high) against Purdue. Rounding out the unit is DE Joe Monty, a junior, whose brother Pete is the top tackler in Wisconsin history.

The linebacking corps is headed by senior Dontez Sanders and junior Mark Zalewski. Sanders has made a team-high 65 tackles on the year, 11 of which came last week. He's also made four hits behind the line, including one sack. Zalewski leads the team with 8 ½ TFL (sixth best in the Big Ten) and is the number two tackler with 48. LaMarr Watkins starts on the strong side and is backed up by freshman Jonathan Casillas, who blocked the punt that led to the improbable game-winning touchdown against Minnesota.

Final Analysis
This one has all the markings of an ugly game. Last week's 63-10 debacle forced all but the true die-hards out of Memorial Stadium even before the Chief's performance. It many not get much better this week, as Calhoun and his running mates are licking their chops at the prospect of facing a rushing defense that allows 5.9 yards per rush. The Illini surrender 226.7 ypg on the ground, while 10th ranked Northwestern allows only 188.9. Yikes. The thing that doesn't help the ninth worst overall defense is the fact the Illini are dead last in total offense. The saying goes that things will get worse before they get better, and after the last two home games, they cannot get too much worse. I guess we need to hope the latter part turns out to be true. That, however, will have to wait a week, as the Badgers leave town with a decisive 51-17 victory.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Saturday's game may have been the low point in Illinois football history. Thankfully, there was Game One of the World Series to make the Penn State game irrelevant on my personal sports radar.
  • Bobby Jenks on Saturday: filthy. On Sunday: a rookie.
  • I overpaid for a ticket to Game Two and it was worth every penny.
  • Now that the Illini season is effectively over, give the ball to Rashard Mendenhall and let's see what he can do. Tyrell Sutton at Northwestern and Javon Ringer at MSU were not as highly touted and are doing just fine. I don't care if he has ball security and pass blocking deficiencies, the season is all but lost, so it's time to see if he's all he was cracked up to be.
  • Purdue stinks and Michigan State has reverted back to their accustomed inconsistent ways. I was dead wrong about Northwestern. They can't play much defense, but, boy, are they fun to watch.

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