Fifth-ranked Badgers Tough Test for Illini

The resurgent Fighting Illini football team, uplifted by its big upset of Penn State last week, goes from the frying pan to the fire when the Wisconsin Badgers invade Memorial Stadium Saturday. The fifth ranked team in the country has won 14 straight games over two seasons, the longest current winning streak in the country. A look at their team demonstrates clearly why.

Now in his second year, head coach Bret Bielema has accumulated a 17-1 record while continuing the work of his predecessor Barry Alvarez. With a similar offensive and defensive philosophy and even a similar birthday to Alvarez, Bielema produces wins for insatiable Wisconsin fans.

The Badgers can boast a nine-game winning streak in the Big Ten besides their overall 14 game steak. Considering how they were the Big Ten's doormat prior to Alvarez' arrival, the turnaround has been complete and appears to be continuing indefinitely.

Their formula for success is simple. Recruit great players, and then employ a dominant defense and powerful running game to mininize mistakes and control the clock. They use the run to set up the pass. Since they always seem to have great running backs operating behind a massive, strong offensive line, their passing game can be especially effective when opponents brace for more runs.

P. J. Hill is the featured back in UW's offense. He was difficult to block last year, but he is perhaps more effective at his reduced weight of 227 pounds this year. He runs behind an offensive line known for its zone blocking and clever holding. Hill waits to see which way his linemen take their men and then cuts off those blocks. If his offensive linemen can control the line of scrimmage, Hill might just carry the ball on every play.

Hill's 133.4 rushing yards per game average ranks sixth in the country. He has had four straight games over 100 yards rushing, something he has accomplished 12 of his 18 collegiate games. And he was named Co-Big Ten Offensive Player Of The Week when he accumulated 155 yards and two touchdowns against MSU last week. Illini Coach Ron Zook is glowing in his praise.

"He's a big, strong, physical back. Breaks tackles, runs low. Looks like he's lost a little weight. He's quicker, faster, more of a cut-back runner. We thought last year that he was a heck of a cut-back runner, but he's a big back who's got all the moves. Obviously, here's a guy that was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a pretty good league. That tells you the kind of back that he is.

"I think the size of him, like Jerome Bettis for example, he had moves, but he was a more power kind of run-over-you type guy. Where P.J. can do that as well as make you miss. I think that there were a couple plays in the Michigan State game where he about broke a guy's ankle. He's got the shiftiness, the vision, and the God-given ability that you need to be a great running back. They've got a great scheme. They are just going to line up and beat you up."

Illinois defensive line coach Tom Sims and his players have their work cut out for them trying to neutralize UW's running game. If you are too aggressive rushing at one angle, the play goes the other way. If you stay back to read the running back, you are letting the Badgers control the line, allowing them more rushing yardage and their quarterback more time to pass.

"Pretty much everybody we play zone blocks, they just do it extremely well," says Sims. They're extremely effective in what they do, as shown by their past history and their record."

Fifth year senior Tyler Donovan (6'-1", 185) quarterbacks the Wisconsin offense. Outside observers thought perhaps there would be a dropoff after star John Stocco graduated last year, but Donovan has put up some impressive numbers so far. He is 7-0 in his 7 career starts. In those starts, he has completing 62.2% of passes for 1544 yards, 13 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. Plus, he can beat you with his legs as well as his arm.

Donovan has a number of excellent receivers from which to choose. Tight end Travis Beckum (6'-4", 227) destroyed Illinois last year as a redshirt freshman, and he caught ten balls last week against Michigan State. He is tall, fast and athletic. Illini linebackers and safeties will have a hard time covering him.

Senior wide receiver Luke Swan (6'-1", 190) is a favorite target. He is backed by freshman David Gilreath (5'-11", 160), a small but quick receiver who also excels as a punt and kick returner. On the opposite side, two freshmen share the load. Kyle Jefferson (6'-5", 195) and Maurice Moore (5'-11", 165) are both skilled. Jefferson had his first collegiate touchdown last weekend.

The effectiveness of the Wisconsin offense can be measured by a couple of interesting statistics. They are third in the country in time of possession. With a punishing ground game that uses clock and a controlled passing game that makes few mistakes, the Badgers keep their opponents' offenses off the field. And they are good in the clutch, converting over half of their third downs, good for eighth best in the country.

Illini linebacker J. Leman will be facing off against P. J. Hill and his offensive teammates. They have his utmost respect.

"They're a fine football team, and their number 5 rating is no mistake. They've won 14 games in a row, which leads the country, and they deserve it. They're physical, physical, team."

Wisconsin's defense is the equal of its offense despite having given up 34 points to a good Michigan State team last week. Almost all of their starters return from last year's dominant unit. They have speed and athletic ability at all positions. Their two sophomore safeties are replacing four departed seniors, but they are talented and are learning weekly.

The defensive line is anchored by defensive tackle Nick Hayden (6'-5", 301) and speed rush defensive end Matt Shaughnessy (6'-6", 247). Shaughnessy found himself up close and personal with Illini quarterback Juice Williams repeatedly last year in Madison. Illinois offensive tackle Xavier Fulton's matchup with Shaughnessy might be one of the keys to the outcome.

Jonathan Casillas (6'-2", 220) is a potential superstar linebacker. He is fast and plays the whole field. And All Big Ten cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu (6'-1", 193) is a lock down cover corner. They and their linebacker and defensive back teammates can be difficult to defeat when on their games.

Wisconsin's special teams are also top notch. Punter Ken DeBauche has averaged 46.9 yards per punt in last two games. PK Taylor Mehlhaff is 7 of 7 on field goals so far this year and has 36 three-pointers for his career. His 76.6% accuracy over that time is outstanding.

The Badgers have been ranked in the top 25 in the nation 43 of the last 54 weeks dating back to 2004. Their record is third best in the country over that span, behind only USC and Texas. So they are accustomed to winning and believe they can come back and win on anybody.

A few people have questioned their lofty ranking this year because some of their games have been close. In fact, they've been tied or behind in the fourth quarter of three of their last four games. But they came back and won those games. Coaches everywhere talk about finishing games; Wisconsin is the epitomy of that. They have doubled up their opponents in the fourth quarter, 52-26.

In other words, they played well enough to win when the game was on the line, a mark of a mature, experienced and confident team. No team can be fired up for every game. Only top teams can call on an extra gear to execute when needed to win. They will not let a boistrous Illini crowd or the pressures of an ESPN2 televised broadcast affect them adversity. And they certainly won't worry about pregame predictions that might not favor them.

Coach Zook sums up the Wisconsin team.

""They play hard, they play tough, and they're well coached. This is a defense where they shut us out last year in the second half. They scored 20 unanswered points. Here's a team, in the Big Ten, they have almost 10 minutes more time of possession. The offense does a great job of holding onto that football, so the defense is fresh when they go in there.

"They fly around. They get after you. They've got two awfully good corners. One was all-conference, one was honorable mention all-conference. They've got a nice scheme. They coach it well. The kids play extremely hard, and they get after you."

No doubt, this game will be Illinois' biggest challenge of the season to date.

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