Know Your Foe - Illinois

In a conference matchup of two programs coming off disheartening losses, Wisconsin faces Illinois Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Illini Playbook beat writer Ryan Easterling.

1, Illinois has given up at least 30 points 12 times in the last two seasons, including the last four games this season. Why has it become so hard for the Illini to stop opposing offenses?

Easterling: Last year, Illinois had a lot of young guys in the secondary, but this year it all starts up front, specifically against the run. Illinois' leading tacklers are its safeties and middle linebacker Mason Monheim. When your defensive line gets pushed around and your outside linebackers aren't containing the plays on the edges, opponents break big plays. Illinois' poor run defense is ranked 119th out of 125 teams in FBS in yards per game (249.5 YPG). If you can't stop the run, it becomes much more difficult to get your defense off the field, and your defense gets worn out in a hurry.

2, Although his run defense was a calling card of Tim Beckman’s at Toledo, the Illini’s run defense has gotten progressively worse every season. Is there a reason behind the decrease in production?

Easterling: For whatever reason, the Illinois defense has grown more and more reactionary instead of proactive in firing at the line of scrimmage. Part of that has to do with diminishing talent along the defensive line. A handful of years ago, Illinois had the tandem of Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence on the interior with Jonathan Brown and Ian Thomas behind them at linebacker, and the Illini were successful in defending the run. Without the same talent on the defensive line, more of the pressure has been placed on a still-instinctive but less athletic corps of linebackers. And without erasers on the back end at safety, plays gain more and more yards as time goes on.

3, Who are some of the top skill position players on offense for Wisconsin to be aware of?

Easterling: The most important skill position player for Illinois will be on the sideline for the next month and a half. Without Wes Lunt, Illinois' passing game takes a big hit. Riley O'Toole is a senior and has seen a lot in his career, but his arm doesn't have the same velocity as Lunt's, so the timing does change a bit. Josh Ferguson has been up and down so far this year. Part of his struggles have been due to inconsistent offensive line run blocking, but Ferguson is a threat in the passing game as well on check downs and screens.

The hottest skill player Illinois has right now is true freshman receiver Mike Dudek, who is very much in the mold of former Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. Dudek is second in the B1G in receiving to Leonte Carroo, has been the most popular target for Illinois quarterbacks and makes big plays time after time.

4, How much is the offense going to change with Riley O’Toole at quarterback replacing the injured Wes Lunt?

Easterling: The offense gets more conservative with O'Toole in at quarterback. It isn't that O'Toole doesn't know the entire playbook (he does), but he doesn't have the same arm that Lunt has. O'Toole will likely check to short and intermediate routes more often, especially with some of the deep-ball struggles he had in his start against Nebraska. I don't see Illinois running the football significantly more, despite some of Wisconsin's best defenders out with injuries.

5, Are there any advantages for Illinois to take the redshirt off Aaron Bailey at this point in the season?

Easterling: Ideally, Illinois would have redshirted Bailey last year, but that's all water under the bridge at this point. If Bailey gives you a better chance to win with Lunt out an extended period of time, then you have to go with him. If O'Toole has to come out of the game, you don't really have much of a choice but to play the former four-star recruit. Bailey is known mostly for his running, but his passing ability is still a bit of a mystery. He has a strong arm, but timing and accuracy are the big question marks with him.

6, How has the mood changed since Illinois lost a home game to Purdue Saturday, considered by some as rock bottom in the Beckman era?

Easterling: The mood wasn't especially positive even before the Purdue game. Illinois had to come back in their three wins against non-BCS opponents this year, and the defense had struggles in each of those games. Illinois fans were hopeful that they could at least beat a struggling Purdue team who wasn't especially effective at rushing the ball. But 349 rushing yards later and an 11-point loss at home in front of numerous former players and alumni may have been the nail in the coffin for the Tim Beckman era at Illinois. The lack of progress and improvement is probably the most condemning thing to most Illinois fans.

7, What does Tim Beckman have to do to keep his job this season or has that shipped already sailed?

Easterling: Many expected Beckman to be shown the door within a couple days of the Purdue loss, but it looks like he will at least be coaching on Saturday at Wisconsin. Anything short of a miraculous blowout of one of the best rushing teams in the nation probably means that nothing will change. Beckman has done a lot to get the team straightened out off the field (better GPA, less off-field incidents), but the results on the field haven't been the type that encourages Athletic Director Mike Thomas to retain him. It's been a slippery slope at Illinois with coaches over the last decade, but Beckman has spun his wheels the last season and not moved forward.

8, Where do you think the Illini have the edge over the Badgers?

Easterling: If there is one group that Illinois has the edge at, it's the receiver group. Dudek and junior Geronimo Allison are both playmakers in the passing game, and regardless of who is at quarterback, they will be leaned upon frequently to move the ball down the field. 9, What is the one thing Illinois needs to do well in order to win Saturday?

Easterling: It won't be easy, but I think Illinois has to win in two areas. One, Illinois needs to win the turnover battle. Illinois has struggled with turnover differential for the last three or four years and that has a significant impact on the outcomes of many of their games. Wisconsin's quarterback play has been inconsistent, so if Illinois can somehow manage to generate a pass rush, it will give the DB's some opportunities to make a play on the ball.

Second, they have to find a way to at least slow down the run, even if it means putting nine guys in the box. Melvin Gordon is arguably one of the best backs in the country. He could easily feast on Illinois on Saturday if they can't man up against the run.

10, Are you giving Illinois any chance to win this game? Final score?

Easterling: It would take nearly everything to fall into place for Illinois to have a shot in this one. Morale is down, the defense is struggling and the Illini are facing possibly their worst matchup of the season against Wisconsin's run game without its own offensive leader. I know Wisconsin fans have been alarmed at the play of the Badgers lately, but unless Wisconsin decides to throw the ball 60 times and keeps Gordon on the bench all game, Wisconsin should literally run away with this one. 49-17 with 400+ yards of rushing for the Badgers.

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