The Fighting Illini football team is back on the road again as they travel to Madison for a game with the Wisconsin Badgers Saturday. Despite a major coaching changeover and some important graduation losses, the Badgers have proven themselves to be one of the Big Ten's top teams this year.
New coach Bret Bielema has taken over for Barry Alvarez at the helm for Wisconsin, and he has replaced all but two of Alvarez' assistants. Despite the coaching turnover, the Badgers have marched on as if nothing has changed. This is probably because Bielema is an Alvarez clone, even to having a similar birthday. Like his predecessor, Bielema is a defensive coach who preaches aggressive defense and an offense dominated by a strong running game. A similar system has been in place for many years now, so the players had little difficulty with the transition. And Alvarez left a full cupboard of quality athletes.
The Badgers are 7-1 on the season and are now ranked 17th in the latest AP poll. Their defense is ranked much higher. Purdue discovered how tough Wisconsin is on defense last week as their high-flying passing attack was minimized in every way. The Badgers put constant pressure on the Purdue quarterback and gave his receivers no room to maneuver. And they completely shut down the Purdue running attack, making it easier to pressure the quarterback's passing efforts.
Offensively, redshirt freshman P. J. Hill is the latest of a long line of Wisconsin running backs who have excelled behind a mammoth, agile and super strong offensive line. Built like former star Ron Dayne and putting up similar numbers, the 242 pound bruiser already has over 1000 yards on the season.
Junior quarterback John Stocco keeps defenses honest with an efficient passing attack made more successful by concerns opposing defenses have about the powerful running attack. Stocco gets great protection from his linemen, so he can relax in the pocket and wait for his receivers to get open. Thus, he has a high completion percentage. The Badgers have a talented field goal kicker as well.
The Illini have their work cut out for them to achieve their second Big Ten win. They will need to remain confident and give their best effort despite the frustrations of three straight tough losses. They will need to play mistake-free football, learning from previous errors and putting everything together for one supreme effort. Only their absolute best will give the Badgers a game on their home turf.
Wisconsin will likely blitz Juice Williams frequently and try to take him out of his game. After all, they have seen how the freshman sometimes rushes his passes or throws inaccurately when pressured. Juice will need to relax and trust himself and his teammates and not let the stress of the game limit his abilities. And his offensive line mates will need their best game to keep Juice's jersey clean and his receivers happy.
As always, the Illini need to mix run and pass to spread the defense and keep it honest. Illinois has an excellent rush yardage average so far this year, but this will be a big test for them as Wisconsin is strong up the middle defensively and has speed in the secondary. While it is doubtful Illini coaches agree with this assessment, this writer feels the Illini need to hit a couple of long bombs on first downs early in the game. If the Badgers begin to fear the long passes, they might spread their defense enough to make rushing easer and open intermediate spaces for receivers.
Conversely, if the Badgers stop Illinois' running game and gain a lead sufficient to force them to pass, Juice Williams might end up running for his life. Besides producing a blowout loss for Illinois, this might do long-term damage to the freshman quarterback's psyche. Thus, something must be done to protect Juice and keep Wisconsin off balance. Juice has a much better chance of completing passes on first down than on third and long situations, so the Illini offense will need to be creative.
Defensively, Illini linemen need to fight hard with their hands to prevent the Badger blockers from tieing them up. If they can't clog the running lanes, Hill and his backups will run all over the field. They will also need to keep track of cutbacks and not let their aggressiveness run themselves out of plays. While there is great temptation to look run first, Wisconsin will complete numerous passes if that aspect of their game is not respected. They use the run to set up the pass, and Illinois' young secondary will need to remain disciplined and not cheat in anticipation of another run. If they do, they'll get burned.
Wisconsin is talented and on a role; they expect to win. But there is at least a small chance they might take Illinois lightly. They have played Minnesota and Purdue in their last two games, and they face Penn State next week. It is doubtful they will be as sky high for Illinois as for the others. This doesn't mean they are vulnerable for upset, but it might mean the Illini can keep it closer than the point spread indicates.
From this perspective, Illinois' best chance for victory rests with the mental and emotional status of the team. If they are sufficiently resilient enough to forget the close losses of the last three weeks, they can cause the Badgers problems. If they can reach and sustain a peak emotional state and play error-free ball, the Illini can pull out a victory. Certainly, one would think they deserve some good things to happen to them after competing so well in recent weeks with little to show for it. Of course, if they let the pain of the recent losses color their outlook, they could be on the short end of a massacre.
The young Illini football team is learning many lessons that will help them become better in the future. Some of these lessons have been painful, but they are still valuable learning experiences. The Illini players must now learn to prepare for their top effort every week despite the normal meatgrinder Big Ten schedule and not let down even once through 12 straight weeks of intense activity. It is difficult to remain confident and enthusiastic when victories are not the norm, but it is essential to play one's best every week. The teams that do will end up in the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
The key to this game is Illinois' state of mind. If they come ready to play, it could be an interesting game. But nothing less than their best will suffice.
Illinois @ Wisconsin: Preview
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