UW v. Illinois, matchup analysis

A close look at the Badgers and Illini leading up to Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois offense versus Wisconsin defense

Illinois projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

QB Tim Brasic (Jr. 6-2, 200) MLB Andy Crooks (So. 6-3, 242)
RB Pierre Thomas (Jr. 5-11, 200) WLB Dontez Sanders (Sr. 6-1, 223)
FB Jason Davis (Sr. 5-11, 235) SLB LaMarr Watkins (Sr. 6-1, 223)
LT JJ Simmons (Jr. 6-5, 290) RE Matt Shaughnessy (Fr. 6-6, 230)
LG Martin O'Donnell (So. 6-5, 300) RT Nick Hayden (So. 6-5, 302)
C Matt Maddox (Jr. 6-3, 310) LT Mike Newkirk (Fr. 6-3, 250)
RG James Ryan (So. 6-5, 310) LE Joe Monty (Jr. 6-2, 252)
RT Ryan McDonald (Fr. 6-5, 285) FS Roderick Rogers (Jr. 6-2, 181) 
TE Melvin Bryant (Jr. 6-5, 230) SS Joe Stellmacher (Jr. 6-1, 216)
WR Kyle Hudson (Fr. 5-11, 165) CB Brett Bell (Sr. 6-0, 200)
WR Kendrick Jones (Sr. 6-2, 180) CB Allen Langford (Fr. 5-11, 187)

Illinois' offense has struggled to move the ball consistently and has put points on the board anemically, producing a Big Ten-low 19.6 points per game.

The Illini have some dangerous players, but the adjustment to a new system under a first-year coach with a first-year starter at quarterback has been a weighty exercise. Illinois has had some success running the football, with running back Pierre Thomas averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But the team as a whole is gaining 3.7 yards per attempt, and the Illini are 10th in the league in rushing at 149.1 yards per game.

Thomas is a powerful runner, and running back E.B. Halsey is a versatile threat. Halsey is third on the team with 206 rushing yards, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that has struggled to create seams. Halsey is also the team's leading receiver, with 32 receptions for 171 yards and two scores.

The most talented running back on the team, however, is freshman Rashard Mendenhall, who received significant playing time in the blowout loss to Penn State last week. This season he has 130 yards on 29 carries, as well as 70 receiving yards and two touchdowns in 11 catches.

Fullback Jason Davis' workload has gone down as Illinois has made the change from a pro-style offense to a shotgun spread set, but he can contribute as both a runner and receiver.

Quarterback Tim Brasic is completing 63 percent of his passes, but his 117.1 pass efficiency rating is the lowest of any starting quarterback in the Big Ten. He has thrown for 1,320 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Brasic is a dangerous runner on keepers and options. He has scored three touchdowns and has 242 rushing yards. Brasic's rushing statistics would, of course, be better if the Illini had not allowed 19 sacks in seven games, the worst mark in the conference.

Wisconsin's pass rush has been quiet the past three weeks, with zero sacks. The team did get some pressure on Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter, after rarely showing up in the same picture with Northwestern's Brett Basanez or Minnesota's Tony Mortensen.  But Mortensen only attempted 17 passes and NU's rhythm passing game, and Basanez's nimble feet, make it very difficult to apply pressure. If you UW can slow down the running game early and build a quick lead - a definite possibility - the Badgers will be able to tee off on Brasic or backup Chris Pazan.

The Illini have a very talented receiving corps that will challenge the Badgers' developing secondary. Again, however, this is mostly a very young group that is still trying to find its stride. Senior Kendrick Jones, freshman Kyle Hudson and sophomore DeJuan Warren all have 16 receptions this season. The Illini will frequently use three- and four-receiver sets and mix in several freshmen and sophomores, with Hudson and Warren leading the way.

Against Purdue last week, the Badgers almost exclusively stayed in their base defense, trusting linebackers LaMarr Watkins and Dontez Sanders and safeties Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers to pick up receivers in pass coverage. That tactic worked against the Boilermakers spread, but UW could also play more with three cornerbacks, as they did versus three- and four-receiver sets earlier this year. The emergence of redshirt freshman Jack Ikegwuonu at corner gives UW flexibility in this regard.

The Badgers will likely play without one of their best defensive players in middle linebacker Mark Zalewski, who was injured last week against Purdue. Expect sophomore Andy Crooks, who started five games in that spot last year, to take his place. UW will miss Zalewski's range, leadership and overall ability, but Crooks is a talented young player who has been waiting for another opportunity to prove himself.

Defensive end Kurt Ware, one of the Badgers' top reserves, practiced this week but is still limited by an ankle injury. He split time with end Joe Monty versus Purdue and will likely rotate in again this week. Defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski played for the first time last Saturday but is still recuperating from the knee injury that kept him out of the first seven games. He is questionable for Saturday.

The Badgers' defense should be more confident after effectively winning last week's game against Purdue. And this week, for the first time in conference play, Wisconsin's defense should have a distinct advantage.

Wisconsin offense versus Illinois defense

Illinois projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

LB J. Leman (So. 6-2, 235) QB John Stocco (Jr. 6-2, 197)
LB Remond Willis (Fr. 6-1, 220) TB Brian Calhoun (Jr. 5-10, 203)
LB Anthony Thornhill (So. 6-1, 215) FB Chris Pressley (So. 6-0, 256)
DE Derek Walker (Fr. 6-4, 245) LT Joe Thomas (Jr. 6-8, 303)
DT Chris Norwell (So. 6-6, 290) LG Matt Lawrence (Sr. 6-5, 295)
DT Ryan Matha (Sr. 6-3, 300) C Donovan Raiola (Sr. 6-3, 294)
DE Arthur Boyd (Jr. 6-2, 260) RG Jason Palermo (Sr. 6-3, 307)
FS Justin Harrison (So. 5-11, 215) RT Kraig Urbik (Fr. 6-6, 317)
SS Kevin Mitchell (So. 6-0, 190) TE Jason Pociask (Sr. 6-3, 258)
CB Charles Bailey (So. 6-1, 195) WR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
CB Sharriff Abdullah (Jr. 5-8, 170) WR Jonathan Orr (Sr. 6-3, 190)

With six sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup, it is no wonder that Illinois is having a very difficult time slowing down Big Ten offenses. The Badgers are loaded with veteran talent and this looks like a potentially monstrous mismatch.

The Illini are ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (39.9 points allowed per game) and rushing defense (226.7 yards allowed per game), and ninth in total defense (455.0). Wisconsin comes into Saturday's matchup ranked first in the league in scoring offense (39.5 points per game), fifth in rushing (180.4 yards per game) and seventh in total offense (390.5).

The Badgers are getting the job done with one of the nation's best tailbacks, Brian Calhoun, and under-rated quarterback John Stocco, who has quietly been one of the nation's most efficient passers. Stocco is certainly helped by the presence of senior receivers Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr, who should have little trouble getting open against the Illini secondary.

The defensive backfield, though, is the least of Illinois' worries. The Illini front seven is young, talented, and completely overmatched. Wisconsin's offensive line has not exactly been a juggernaut, but it has a clear edge this week. And the Badgers may have a chip on their shoulder after struggling to establish their running game the past two weeks. Expect Calhoun to crack 200 yards early in the third quarter.

Wisconsin tight end Owen Daniels played last week but was obviously limited by the ankle injury he originally suffered in the Big Ten opener. He is questionable for Saturday.

Wisconsin versus Illinois special teams

Illinois projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

PK Jason Reda (So. 6-1, 195) PK/KO Taylor Mehlhaff (So. 5-11, 179)
P/KO Steve Weatherford (Sr. 6-3, 215) P/H Ken DeBauche (So. 6-2, 219)
LS Kyle Knezetic (So. 6-1, 215) LS Steve Johnson (So. 6-3, 247)
PR E.B. Halsey (Jr. 5-10, 200) PR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
KR Pierre Thomas (Jr. 5-11, 200) KR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)

If Illinois gives Brandon Williams an opportunity to return a kick or punt, watch out. The Illini coverage units have struggled this season and Williams has been excellent. Opponents have also done a solid job of avoiding him.

Wisconsin place kicker Taylor Mehlhaff missed a pair of attempts from long distance (50 and 47 yards) against Purdue last week, just the third and fourth misses of his career. It will be important for the young place kicker to have success Saturday to maintain his confidence. In his first year handling field goals, Mehlhaff has been solid.

Punters Ken DeBauche and Steve Weatherford are first and second in the Big Ten in average yards per punt at 45.6 and 43.0, respectively. Wisconsin, though, is second in the league in net punting at 39.5 per game, and DeBauche has done a remarkable job of pinning opponents inside the 20. Illinois, meanwhile, is tied with Northwestern for last in the league in net punting, at 33.4 yards per punt.

Halsey has had little success as a punt returner, with just 61 yards on 13 attempts. Thomas is averaging 23.9 yards per kick return for Illinois.

Illini place kicker Jason Reda is a solid 11-for-15 on field goal attempts this season. Three of his misses came against Iowa, including one from 21 yards out.

Final thoughts

Illinois is a struggling football team hosting a Big Ten title contender. And the Badgers do not look like they will take this game lightly. This one will be over by halftime.

BadgerNation.com prediction: Wisconsin 49, Illinois 10

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