Head coach Bret Bielema has had a sparkling record of 21-5 as a head coach and is an amazing 27-3 at home since arriving as an assistant in 2004. But his 2008 Big Ten schedule began at Michigan, followed by home dates with Ohio State and Penn State.
A fourth quarter breakdown led to an upset loss to the Wolverines, and the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are the class of the conference. So it was not surprising the Badgers would have nothing left in their tanks when they travelled to Iowa last week.
But they are still a team loaded with talent and pride, and Homecoming could be just the elixir to rouse them from their lethargy. Some of their injured players are regaining their health, and they would like nothing better than to reverse their loss last year in Champaign.
As has been true since the beginning of the Barry Alvarez era and continuing to the present, Wisconsin's bread and butter is a power running game and strong defense. Led by a massive offensive line and big power backs, the Badgers are accustomed to biting off huge chunks of real estate on the ground. They are second in the Big Ten in rushing. And they are second in pass defense and trail only OSU and PSU in total defense.
Wisconsin always has a giant offensive line, and those athletes are usually both quick and powerful. This year, their five starters to begin the season had already accumulated 104 career starts, so they are experienced as well. Left tackle Gabe Carimi (6'-8", 301) and right guard Keith Urbik (6'-6", 332) have been injured recently, which has affected their offensive output.
One and possibly both these athletes will be healthy enough to play against Illinois. If not, Carimi will be replaced by Josh Oglesby (6'-7", 328), a high school All-American. And Bill Nagy (6'-4", 300) will sub for Urbik. The other starters are left guard Andy Kemp (6'-6", 315), center John Moffitt (6'-4", 323), and right tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel (6'-7", 324).
The Badgers aren't fancy, they just try to run you into the ground. P. J. Hill (5'-11", 236) has starred for them at tailback the last couple years, but he has been slowed by injuries this season. Freshman and former All-American John Clay (6'-2", 237) is Hill's backup, and he is now tied for second in the Big Ten Conference with 253 yards and a 6.5 yard per carry average. Zach Brown (5'-11", 207) also sees considerable action at running back. Pile-driving fullback Chris Pressley (6'-1", 259) functions as an extra lineman.
The biggest problem for UW this year on offense has been quarterback. Allen Evridge (6'-2", 212) began the season as the starter, but he was too streaky and replaced last week by junior Dustin Sherer (6'-4", 213). Sherer is the starter for the Illinois game, and Scott Tolzien (6'-3", 200) may have relegated Evridge to third string. Sherer is inexperienced, but he completed 17of 34 passes for 161 yards last week vs. Iowa.
Despite favoring the run over the pass, Wisconsin is always loaded with receivers. H-Back Travis Beckum (6'-4", 235) is their star when healthy. He almost defeated Illinois single-handedly last year. He is regaining top form after a nagging injury to begin the season, and he now leads the team in receptions. Tight End Garrett Graham (6'-4", 237) follows close behind Beckum in receptions.
Wide receiver David Gilreath (5'-11", 165) is also a major threat as a punt and kickoff returner. He is 7th in the Big Ten in all-purpose yardage. He is backed by freshman Nick Toon (6'-3", 214), Illini nemesis Al Toon's son. Isaac Anderson (5'-11", 176) and Kyle Jefferson (6'-5", 175) see plenty of time at the other wide receiver position.
UW's four defensive linemen have combined for 110 career starts. Seniors Jason Chapman (6'-4", 264"), Mike Newkirk (6'-3", 264) and Matt Shaughnessy (6'-6", 253) and junior O'Brien Schofield (6'-3", 232) are talented and experienced. Shaughnessy is a star who has amazing quickness off the edge.
SAM linebacker DeAndre Levy (6'-3", 238) and WILL LB Jonathan Casillas (6'-2", 226) are senior regulars on defense and have each started for three years. Both are rated highly and have played well against Illinois. But MIKE linebacker Jaevery McFadden (6'-3", 220) leads the team in tackles and is 9th in the Big Ten despite a broken hand.
The defensive backfield includes cornerbacks Allen Langford (5'-11", 175) and freshman Mario Goins (6'-1", 186). The safeties are Jay Valai (5'-9", 197) and Chris Maragos (6'-0", 189). Maragos has starred since taking over the 1st string spot.
Place kicker Philip Welch, a redshirt freshman, has hit on 8 field goals in a row and 12 of 14 on the season. He's 6 of 7 from at least 40 yards.
Wisconsin may be struggling to regain their confidence after a meat-grinder schedule, but returning home for Homecoming will undoubtedly boost their spirits. Any team that takes them lightly is certain to fail. They can still have a decent season, and their plan is to start a winning streak Saturday. It will take a great effort for Illinois to win in Madison.