Preview: A Tale of Two Stretches

After starting the season 6-0 to become bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 20 years, Illinois has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse, dropping four straight games as distractions mount and rumors about its head coach persist, making Saturday's game against Wisconsin a make-or-break opportunity.

MADISON - Ron Zook was as clear and concise as he could be when he took to the microphone for his weekly Tuesday press conference in preparation for his team's home finale.

The focus was on Illinois, not him, and if anybody felt compelled to ask him about his future at Illinois, he was going to leave. After about 20 minutes, he did just that, leaving when a reporter asked if he had counseled his players on fielding questions about his situation and preventing them from becoming a distraction.

"You just couldn't let it go, could you?" Zook snipped at the reporter before waving goodbye. "You guys take it easy."

It's ironic, because nothing has come easy for the Fighting Illini over the last month of the season and doesn't appear to get any easier with No.15 Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) at Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m. Saturday and closing the season at suddenly-improving Minnesota.

Starting the season 6-0 for the first time since 1951, Illinois rose to No.16 in the AP poll based on the fact it knew how to win close games and how to score points, winning three straight games by three points and averaged 34.6 points during the streak.

After the team posted a 7-6 record last season, its first winning season since its 2007 Rose Bowl season, and upset Baylor in the Texas Bowl, Zook's first bowl win in nine years as a head coach and Illinois' first bowl triumph since 1999, fans were thinking Pasadena once again.

Since then, the schedule has gotten tougher and the offense has gone dormant. In consecutive losses to Ohio State, at Purdue, at Penn State and Michigan, Illinois (6-4, 2-4) averaged 11.3 points per game and haven't scored in the first half of any of the four losses.

Illinois is bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992, but nobody is talking about that with the Fighting Illini seemingly losing control over the last month.

"I think everyone has dropped off and that's one of the things as a coaching staff we are trying to figure out, as well, what happens," said Zook, who is 34-49 in six-plus seasons in Champaign. "We have the same guys and the first indication is a lot of teams know what we are doing well … The one thing we have to do is get back to the basics."

Basics would include finding rhythm again offensively from sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, last season's runner-up to Badgers tailback James White in the conference freshman of the year voting.

After completing 66.1 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions during the winning streak, all of Sheelhaase's numbers have dipped, dropping 8.3 percentage points in his completions, 51.5 yards per game and eight fewer touchdown passes. In the last six games, he has thrown three interceptions to just two touchdowns.

Without much of a running game, senior Jason Ford leads the team in rushing yards (518) and rushing touchdowns (seven), Illinois has become a struggling one-dimensional attack.

"It's not even one position," Zook said. "It's a guy here, a guy here, a guy here, and they kind of take turns. Football is a mental game, and we have got to make sure our guys are thinking (and) just lining up and playing."

One of the bright spots for Illini has been their defense, which is 12th in the country in points against (18.6 per game), have held 11 of their 12 opponents to 21 points or less and lead the conference in both sacks (3.2 per game) and tackles for (8.1 per game).

Now the depth of that unit took a hit when starting linebacker Tulon Henry, ninth on the team with 39 tackles, was one of three people shot at a party near campus early Sunday. Henry underwent surgery to repair his ring finger and will miss the final two games of the regular season.

Zook additionally suspended two other players, freshmen Jordan Frysinger and Kenny Knight, who were arrested after a fight Saturday night. Neither has played this season, but it adds more distractions to a team that seems surrounded by them.

With two years remaining on his contract at $1.3 million a year, many are calling for Zook to be fired at the end of the season, resulting in the university having to pay him the full $2.6 million buyout. Athletic director Mike Thomas has said publicly that he will evaluate Zook's performance at the end of the season.

It may come sooner if his team has another listless performance Saturday against Wisconsin, and he knows stopping UW's offense will be a task unto itself.

"The quarterback (Badgers Russell Wilson) is a great player, he' an older guy, has got professional experience, so he understands what competing is all about," Zook said. "The running back leads the nation in touchdowns and a young offensive line that is bigger than the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. They've got a lot of weapons and they use them all."

No.15/No.17 (AP/BCS) Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten - Leaders) vs. Illinois (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten - Leaders)

Date/Time - Saturday, November 19 at 11:01 a.m. CT

Stadium –Memorial Stadium (60,670/AstroPlay)

Television - ESPN2 (Beth Mowins and Mike Bellotti)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas), Sirius Ch.117, XM Ch.194

Series – Illinois leads 35-34-7 (19-14-3 in Champaign)

Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 27-17, on Oct. 25, 2008 in Madison

Series Notes:

UW has won five of the last six meetings between the teams.

This will be the first meeting between the schools since a 27-17 Badger win at Camp Randall Stadium in 2008.

Since 1993, UW leads the series 10-3-1. Wisconsin and Illinois played the last tie game in FBS history, a 3-3 deadlock in the final game of the 1995 season.

UW head coach Bret Bielema is a native of Prophetstown, Ill.

Wisconsin has five Illinois natives on its roster: James Adeyanju (Chicago), Ethan Armstrong (Ottawa), Jon Budmayr (Woodstock), Warren Herring (Fairview Heights) and Jerry Ponio (Chicago).

Wisconsin Notes:

Ball leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth in the country with 1,242 rushing yards. That is the 14th-best single-season total in school history. Ball's 147.0 yards on the ground during Big Ten play are almost 20 yards better than Iowa's Marcus Coker, who is in second place.

The Badgers are second in the country in pass defense, allowing just 146.3 yards per game through the air. Michigan State is the only team to pass for more than 200 yards against UW this season. UW has allowed fewer than 150.0 yards passing just once since 1991.

The Badgers rank sixth in the country in total defense (280.4 yards per game)and have held seven of their 10 opponents under 300 yards of total offense. They did that just three times last year. UW is 30-2 under head coach Bret Bielema when holding its opponent to less than 300 yards.

The Badgers have been explosive on offense this season. They have 27 scoring drives that have lasted two minutes or less and already have 60 plays of longer than 20 yards through nine games. Last season UW had 55 20+ yard plays in 13 games and 24 scoring drives that lasted two minutes or less.

QB Russell Wilson is a big part of third-down success. On third down this season, he is 41-of-53 for 527 yards (9.9 yards per attempt) with 12 TDs and an interception. That translates to a pass efficiency of 231.8.

Illinois Notes:

The Illinois defense has continued to climb the national rankings. The Illini are allowing 288.3 yards per game to rank ninth nationally in total defense, and also rank in the top-25 nationally in passing defense (173.4, ninth), scoring defense (18.6 ppg, 12th), rushing defense (114.9 ypg, 23rd) and pass efficiency defense (115.5, 24th).

All-America candidate Whitney Mercilus continues to lead the nation in sacks (12.5), sacks per game (1.25) and forced fumbles (7). The seven forced fumbles is an Illinois single-season record and the second-most in Big Ten history, behind only Jonal Saint-Dic's (Michigan State) conference record of eight from 2007.

All-America and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist A.J. Jenkins leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's elite in both receiving yards per game (113.3) and receptions per game (7.6). Jenkins needs 146 yards to break Hall of Famer David Williams' Illinois single-season record of 1,278.

Illinois has shown its ball-control ability in 2011, holding the ball an average of 31:43, which ranks 27th nationally and second in the Big Ten in time of possession. Overall, Illinois has had 17 scoring drives last at least 10 plays and 11 last at least five minutes each.

Illinois has forced at least one turnover in 24 of its last 25 games. The Illini had a streak of 21 consecutive games forcing a turnover, which was the longest active streak in the nation at the time, snapped against Ohio State. Since then, the Illini got one fumble recovery at Purdue, forced three turnovers at Penn State and then three more against Michigan to bring the new streak to three games.

Prediction

Even though there were other results that had a bigger impact in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers winning in Happy Valley and the Boilermakers blocking an extra point that eventually led to an overtime upset over the Buckeyes, it could be argued that no result was more surprising than Wisconsin's thorough domination of Minnesota. I'm not just saying that because I kinda, sorta picked the Gophers to play a four-quarter game but because the Gophers always seem to pick up their game vs. UW at their home.

Instead we saw a bad Gophers team exploited in every faucet by a good Badgers team, which says to me that Wisconsin is back on the uptick. Anytime a team can get a big road win this late in the season, the amount of confidence it gives a team is immeasurable.

The most surprising thing in my research was since Zook took over in 2005, Wisconsin and Illinois rank 1-2 in the conference in rushing yards per game. The Illini's 202.0 yards per game (16,769 yards in 83 games) in the last six-plus seasons is just behind Wisconsin's 204.4 ypg (17,989 yards in 88 games) during that same time span, and the Badgers didn't pass the Illini until last week's game after Illinois led for the last two-plus seasons.

Those Illini numbers are due to players like Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure, all players long gone from Champaign because this year's Illinois run game doesn't scare anybody. In fact, the Illini haven't scared anybody recently with spotty quarterback play and no offense in the first half.

Wisconsin's running game on the other hand features a running back having a record breaking season, a running game that is averaging 250.1 yards per game and a tailback unit that has 40 receptions for 584 yards. Based on that fact alone, it's not a surprise to see Wisconsin has 13-point favorites.

In these type of environments, Wisconsin is the easy choice. Russell Wilson has played solid all season with few mistakes, excellent leadership and the ability to pick apart all kinds of defenses. Illinois will bring pressure up front and that might slow down the Badgers a tick, but it won't be enough to derail an offense that has its sights set on Indianapolis.

Wisconsin 35, Illinois 17

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 7-3

Against the Spread: 6-4

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