UW v. Illinois, Five things to watch

BadgerNation.com's keys to Saturday's football game between the Badgers and Illini

Focus: This is a mismatch, plain and simple. Illinois is in the early throes of a program renovation and will not be a consistently competitive team in the Big Ten for a few seasons. Yes, the Illini have some fine young talents. And, yes, if the Badgers show up expecting to walk all over Illinois, they will be in for a shock. But Wisconsin has not exhibited any signs of a letdown in what is a tune-up before next week's main event at Penn State.

Reveling in returns: Illinois' punt and kick coverage units have struggled this season. The Illini are allowing 17.0 yards per punt return and 31.9 yards per kick return, and have given up one touchdown on each. Now, they have to deal with Brandon Williams, one of the nation's best return men. Williams is averaging 17.2 yards per punt return and 31.0 yards per kick return. He has scored two touchdowns on punt returns. The good news for Illinois is that 18 of the team's 31 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, including 16 of 24 attempts by Steve Weatherford. Weatherford is one of the Big Ten's better punters, averaging 43.0 yards per attempt. Ten of his 44 tries have been downed inside the 20.

Run, run, run: Wisconsin has not emphasized the run early in games the past two weeks. Expect that to change Saturday, with the Badgers geared up for an overmatched Illini defense. Illinois is No. 115 out of 117 Division I-A programs in rush defense, allowing 226.7 yards per game. The Illini pass defense has not been much better, but UW will likely take advantage of the former. Tailback Brian Calhoun already has more than 1,000 yards rushing, but he has not carried the ball more than 26 times in the past four games. In the first four weeks this season, Calhoun had games with 43, 38 and 35 carries.

Wisconsin run defense: The Badgers run defense has not been particularly impressive in recent weeks either. In the past three games, UW has given up 940 yards and eight touchdowns rushing. The Badgers have not held a conference opponent under 100 yards all season. Illinois' rushing attack is ranked 10th in the conference, but tailback Pierre Thomas is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Tim Brasic is also a quality running threat. The Badgers have struggled to stop running quarterbacks, particularly when they can run the option, as Brasic can.

Illini quarterback rotation: Brasic, however, likely will not be the only quarterback UW faces Saturday. Brasic sat for much of the second half in Illinois' 63-10 loss to Penn State last week. Illini coach Ron Zook said this week that Brasic will likely keep his starter's job, but that backup Chris Pazan may spell him from time to time.

"His confidence is not shaken and he knows what he has to do," Zook said of Brasic, "and he also knows — and this is not a threat — but it (is) always good to know that if things are going bad and we need to rest you for a few series, we can do that also."


Badger Nation Top Stories