During his weekly press conference, head coach Paul Chryst said he was unaware if style points mattered to the College Football Playoff committee. While scoring 50+ points would be nice, Chryst said the biggest way for Wisconsin to impress the committee is by making sure they have at least one more point at the end of the game than their opponent. Through two weeks of the committee releasing their rankings for the four team playoff, they’ve agree with Chryst’s thought process.
An ugly win at Northwestern and a Texas A&M loss was good enough for Wisconsin to move up one spot to No.7. Wisconsin will have another opportunity to show why they belong in the playoff conversation as they prepare to play Illinois this afternoon.
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday against Illinois.
1, Red Zone Success
Wisconsin is converting on just 75.8 percent (25-for-33) of its chances inside an opponent’s 20-yard line, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. While UW has faced some tough red-zone defenses (Michigan is first nationally, Ohio State tied for second and Iowa 10th), the Badgers went a combined 7-for-10 in the red zone when it faces a top-10 defense. Illinois is allowing teams to convert on 88.1 percent of opportunities (92nd national), but the Illini only gave up two touchdowns in seven red-zone opportunities last week in a 31-27 win over Michigan State.
Chryst said that Wisconsin was simply not executing in the red zone against Northwestern. If that doesn’t get corrected, the Illini have shown it can make stops with their backs pinned against the goal line. Success will begin in the trenches, as the offensive line needs a better push up front to allow the running backs room to run and for the passing game to have time.
2, Establishing the Ground Game
Wisconsin’s running game has surged over the past month and the the trio of Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw each have played a role. Clement and Ogunbowale each have at least one 100-yard rushing game over the last four games and Shaw had a Big Ten season-high 11 carries at Northwestern. Clement has never had five 100-yard rushing games in a single season, and the senior will have a good chance at accomplishing that feat with Illinois allowing 191.9 yards on the ground. Clement has started to show better patience as of late and has been running physical to help pick up tough yards when the big alleys aren’t there. With Illinois allowing 23 rushing touchdowns this year, expect that Clement finds a way to punch the football in for six when UW gets close to the goal line.
3, Generating Defensive Pressure
Wisconsin’s defense continues to impress with the way it consistently finds ways of creating pressure to slow offenses. If Wisconsin wants to be successful against Illinois, the Badgers need to be stout up the middle to slow down tailback Kendrick Foster, who averages 6.3 yards per carry and ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries in last week’s 31-27 win over Michigan State. A back like that demands that Wisconsin sticks to its defensive assignments to make sure they can wrap him up and stop him for minimal gain. If Wisconsin can stop Foster, it will force Illinois to try and beat Wisconsin with the pass. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. has started the last three games and had his struggles, completing less than 50 percent of his passes and only completing four in a loss to Michigan. If Wisconsin can continue delivering pressure from all corners, George Jr. should give the defense some opportunities to make some game-changing plays.
4, Protecting the Football
Wisconsin has lost four of its six fumbles on the season and both Clement and Shaw have turned the ball over near the opposition's goal line. Wisconsin will need to be aware of where Stanley Green is considering he’s tied for second in the Big Ten with three forced fumbles, including two he created against Michigan State. Not to mention three of his teammates have forced at least two fumbles, as the Illini have forced 17 fumbles (nine recoveries). With Wisconsin’s offense struggling to execute consistently, the Badgers can’t afford to give Illinois any breaks by setting them up with good field position.
5, Control the clock
In Saturday’s win at Northwestern, the Badgers held the football for 40:25. That’s not good news for Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in time of possession (26:21). That should work in Chryst’s favor with Wisconsin looking to establish the run and make sure the line can keep Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston upright. With teams rushing an average of 45.2 times a game against Illinois, and UW rushing an average of 43 times per game in Big Ten play, keeping the ball on the ground will help neutralize an Illini pass rush that averages 2.4 sacks a game.
Illinois’ defense is allowing 407.2 yards of total offense overall and 433.5 yards per Big Ten game. Despite Wisconsin’s defense stellar play this season, the offense hasn’t been able to consistently hold its end of the bargain by coming away with points or helping put games away sooner. It is fair to ask if Wisconsin’s offense can change enough in a week’s span that they’ll be able to fix their woes and exploit the weaknesses of Illinois’ defense. Wisconsin should be able to find success on the ground and generate a couple of successful hits, but it is hard to know what Wisconsin is going to get out of the quarterback position. Since Wisconsin starting using the two quarterback system against Iowa (three games), Wisconsin has run an average of 47.6 times a game compared to 23.3 pass attempts.
Even with concerns offensively, Wisconsin’s defense will come to play and will find ways of slowing Illinois’ offense down. Considering the opponent, Wisconsin’s offense will play with a little more consistency than they have in the last three weeks to help the squad register a 28-10 win.