Illinois coach Ron Turner could write a good advertisement for the Wisconsin defense.
"When I put the tape in on Sunday the first thing I saw; I looked at it and I thought I was watching an NFL defensive line, the way they come off the ball and the speed and the size and the strength they have," he said.
"Their front four are a dominant, dominant front four," Turner said. "They have dominated everybody they've played. They've impacted every game they've played in.
"You've seen them grow up. You've seen them develop into being great football players. Before they were talented, good at times, young players that were good. Now they are old, veteran, really good…They are as dominant up front as any team I can remember since I've been here…They are all just great players.
"That [defensive line] leads their team. They've got linebackers that can really run and they've got two cover corners that are outstanding and they've got a safety that is probably the best in the league.
"Defensively they have seven seniors starting, two juniors and two sophomores and that experience really shows…Not just seniors. They are seniors that have played a lot of football."
Illinois certainly respects Wisconsin's defense—more effusive superlatives have only rarely been spoken—but in a week where the Badgers' ability to intimidate has been a regular thread of discussion, the Illini's public face this week was one of steadfast composure.
"We have to do what we do best: run our offense," Turner said. "We have to be patient. There are going to be some ugly plays against this defense. We know that. We just have to keep going and keep going."
Wisconsin's defense has every reason to feel it can strike fear in the hearts of its opponents. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense, having allowed just 19 points and only one touchdown in four games. They are second in total defense (190 yards per game), ninth in rushing defense (72.8) and third in passing defense (117.2). They have 34 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and have knocked three quarterbacks out of action, including two last week that were the result of vicious hits from defensive end Erasmus James, the back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
"He alone has impacted every game they've played in," Turner said. "Just a phenomenal player. Tremendous motor."
James' were not the only devastating blows, however. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said Monday that 11 of the Badgers' 55 defensive plays versus Penn State last week resulted in a "big hit."
Said Alvarez: "There were some in the secondary, there were some by the linebackers. Jonathan Welsh had just an unbelievable play where he hurdled a blocker and hit the quarterback just as he released the ball. There was Erasmus. But 11 out of 55, that's a pretty high percentage. The effect that it has on a team watching film, they anticipate it being a physical game."
"I remember during the game it just seemed like the hits were just so loud and you just saw so many big hits," cornerback Scott Starks said with a smile. "I just felt it during the game. I didn't count during the game but when we go in to watch the film… you can just see that guys were flying around making some incredible hits, especially in the d-line but in the back end also."
The trick for Illinois, then, is not backing down.
"This one has been marked on my calendar for a while now," Illini center Duke Preston said. "Two years ago we went up there the last time at Camp Randall knowing that those guys really pride themselves inside on stopping the run and being dominant. Especially up front that is something our guys are really looking forward to."
The Illini, remember, beat the Badgers 37-20 in their last trip to Camp Randall, two years ago. They have other reasons to be confidant, such as an offense that ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing (224.5 yards per game), third in passing (224.5) and third in scoring (32.2 points per game). Purdue thoroughly dominated its first two opponents defensively, posting numbers even more impressive than Wisconsin's, then went into Champaign last week and gave up 30 points and 390 yards total offense.
"I think that is the most inspired and aggressive Illinois team we have seen in the last couple, three years and I really felt like they brought their best game, played their best game and it was going to really take something on our part to come out of there with a win," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said Tuesday.
"We know that offensively if we just do our job, trust our techniques and the system we have with Coach Turner's system, we are going to do well," quarterback Jon Beutjer said. "We have a great offensive line this year and we have a lot of weapons offensively. If we just keep doing our job, good things will happen."
Beutjer, a sixth-year senior, has been around long enough to see a thing or two from a defense. But if Wisconsin's front four can get after him, Beutjer's considerable talent will be a moot point.
"Those guys, it doesn't matter who they play, they want to get after it," Preston said, regarding the Badgers' defensive line. "All four of them on that front line, even on their two deep, I know Kalvin Barrett, he's a guy that I played against in high school. Those guys are just football players…Whether it is Central Florida or us, they are out there to dominate and win the game with those four guys. That is a testament to those guys and how hard they play. You look at the numbers, you look at how much recognition they've gotten thus far it is no wonder they play the way they do."
"They have a great defense and it will be a great challenge for our offense," Beutjer said. "I know they have great athletes in the secondary and also at the linebacker positions but their front four is amazing. They all come off the ball hard, they are all NFL-caliber athletes, very strong and physical. They are probably one of the best defensive lines that we'll see all year."
In light of James' quarterback-depleting hits last week, Beutjer was asked how he will respond to Wisconsin's pressure.
"It doesn't really affect my job," he said. "If they get in the backfield when I'm dropping back then I have to move or something like that. I just have to go out there and do my job and execute the offense."
"If a guy gets free," Beutjer said with a shrug, "then make a smart decision, tuck the ball down and run or throw it away…All my preparation is the same."
Perhaps it is just a quarterbacks' mentality. Asked what he would feel like if he had to go up against Wisconsin's defensive line, Badger quarterback John Stocco shrugged it off as well.
"Our d-line is pretty scary if you look at them," he said. "But I wouldn't let that affect me. I've just got to go about my business. Our offensive line has been doing an amazing job all year so you got to have that comfort, you have to trust your offensive linemen and just go out and take care of your business. You can't worry about what else is going on."
Illinois' offensive line was victimized for six sacks against Western Michigan, but has allowed just two in its three other games.
"First thing John Palermo said (Sunday night) as we were going through the films, ‘this will be the best offensive line we've faced,'" Alvarez said.
"Any time you have their best matchup being up front and [with] our best matchup being up front—That is something you look forward to competing and winning," Preston said.
Illini: respect, not fear for Badger ‘D'
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