Preview: A Critical Crossroad

After a 3-0 start, expectations around Wisconsin were that the Badgers would be enjoying the New Year in sunny Pasadena. Four weeks later, Wisconsin fans are just hoping to win a football game and become bowl eligible. The road to recovery begins this Saturday against Illinois.

MADISON – Whether it has been pleading, yelling or simply just coaching, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has tried everything to motivate his team over the past four weeks. Despite the pleas, the Badgers are in the worst free fall in Bielema's tenure and worst in the program since 1996.

Wisconsin's chance of breaking its losing streak isn't going to get any easier when the spread-option offense of Illinois (4-3 overall, 2-2), the team that ultimately started this skid, comes to Camp Randall this Saturday to face the Badgers at 11 a.m.

Before Wisconsin played Illinois in 2007, Bielema was 16-1 (a .941 winning percentage) and riding a nation-best 14-game winning streak. Since their 31-26 setback against the Fighting Illini, the Badgers are just 7-8 (.438 winning percentage).

The problem this season is more than just how the Badgers (3-4 overall, 0-4) are losing, but the way in which they are suffering their setbacks. In 1996 (the last time UW dropped four in a row), Wisconsin lost its four-straight games by a combined total of 27 points, eventually turning the tide by winning five of its last six, including a win over Utah in the Copper Bowl.

This year's edition of Wisconsin football has gotten progressively worse, being out scored 133-46 since taking a 19-0 lead on Michigan, including getting blown out 86-23 in its last two games.

For Bielema, the struggles of his team have taken its toll.

"This is what I live every day, 365 days a year," he said. "I know that I have to stick probably to what I believe in more so now than ever before, and that is the only way that gets us to where we need to be in the end.

"I didn't get into this profession for the salary, I didn't get in this profession for notoriety, I didn't get in this profession to do TV commercials, endorsements, any of the extra outside things. I got in this profession to win. I got in this profession to be around young men and help them become people that, once their playing days are done, they're going to go out and have success."

In order for Wisconsin to have success, the Badgers are going to have to find a way to tackle better. Against Iowa, Wisconsin's poor tackling allowed running back Shonn Greene to find the end zone four times and rush for a career-high 217 yards. Additionally, Wisconsin continued to be flagged for pre-snap procedure penalties, as the Badgers have continued to shoot themselves in the foot time and again.

Against a quarterback like Illinois' Juice Williams, the Badgers won't survive if poor tackling and penalties continue. The junior is tops in the Big Ten in passing yards (1,948), touchdowns (16) and has averaged 410 total yards over the past three games for Illinois.

"Open-field tackling is key and that's something we really need to emphasize with our defense," junior safety Chris Maragos said. "They have a great offense, they are very balanced, great running game, great passing game and it's going to be a tough task for us. The guys on the team are really excited to play."

As the Badgers found out first hand last year, Williams has the ability, like any spread-option quarterback, to make something out of nothing. At 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds, Williams is a virtually different quarterback than the last two times Wisconsin has faced him because of his improvement in the passing game, which is numbers this season have certainly reinforced.

"You can't just defend him. That's why with one player, you also have to have another player in the vicinity to make sure that you can have a stop," Bielema said. "Some of their passing strikes have taken (no time); their scoring drives have been amazing. With that in place, it opens up certain things in a running game, which puts your coverage at an absence."

Offensively, Wisconsin has picked a quarterback this week (junior Dustin Sherer, who passed for 161 yards and two interceptions against Iowa) but are undecided as to who is going to be its running back. After his fourth-straight sub 100-yard game, junior P.J. Hill re-aggravated a foot injury, missed the second half against the Hawkeyes last week and is questionable for this week's game, although said this week that he will play.

If Hill can't go, freshman John Clay, who rushed for a career-best 89 yards, and sophomore Zach Brown, who scored the Badgers' only touchdown last week, will be ready to step in and fill the void.

"I'm very excited about John Clay," Bielema said. "Probably of the three guys, you know, P.J.'s a little bit of the both together, our best option. But John Clay, with what he does, is very, very good. And Zach's really a completely different complement to what John does. If we went into a ballgame with those two guys, I'd be very excited to see what those two can do."

Much like the Hawkeyes, Illinois is fresh off a blowout victory over Indiana, posting 55 points in Bloomington. And much like Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, Illinois head coach Ron Zook isn't fooled by UW's paltry record.

"Everyone knows that they are a much, much better team," Zook said. "This is a football team that is very, very angry and dangerous. Our guys understand the important of the game, the kind of game it is going to be. I am sure they are going to throw caution to win. It's going to take everything we have.

"Last week was probably our best game to date, it's probably going to take better than that and our guys understand that."

Illinois (4-3, 2-2) vs. Wisconsin (3-4, 0-4)

Date/Time - Saturday, October 25 at 11:00 a.m. CT

Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - ESPN2 (Pam Ward and Ray Bentley))

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)

Series – Illinois leads 35-33-7

Last Meeting – Illinois won, 31-26, on Oct. 6, 2007 in Champaign

Notes:

This will be the 76th meeting between Wisconsin and Illinois with the Badgers holding a 19-16-4 advantage in Madison. Illinois' victory last season snapped a string of four straight UW wins in the series. Since 1993, UW leads the series 9-3-1 with the winning team scoring at least 30 points in nine of the last 10 meetings between the teams.

This will be the 11th time Wisconsin has faced Illinois on Homecoming (6-4 in previous 10 such games). The last Homecoming matchup between the teams was a 21-3 Illinois win in 1990, Barry Alvarez's first year as UW's head coach.

Saturday will be the 101st Homecoming game at Wisconsin. The Badgers are 51-44-5 on Homecoming. UW has won four consecutive Homecoming games, winning all four of the contests while Bret Bielema has been on the staff.

Phil Welch's .857 field goal percentage is tied for seventh in the country among kickers with at least 14 attempts. He is 6-of-7 on field goals of at least 40 yards and made a career-long 52-yarder against Michigan. That is tied for the fourth-longest field goal in school history and tied for the 10th-longest on the country this season.

In the first six games of the season, Wisconsin's opponents had converted a league-best 43.5 percent of third down opportunities. Last week, UW held Iowa to just 1-of-10 on third down.

Prediction

Bielema attempted to make a joke on Monday when he said that red windbreaker sales are down since his first year as head coach at Wisconsin. He made another attempt when he was asked Tuesday about the new Web site, firebretbielema.com, saying that ‘Someone in my hometown finally got the Internet.'

All jokes aside, the fact of the matter is that Bielema has gone from ‘Barry who?' to ‘Bring back Barry' in just four short weeks, something nobody thought would be possible after Bielema won 17 of his first 18 games.

Wisconsin has digressed in every major aspect of offense, defense and special teams over this four-game skid and fans throughout Badger Nation are calling for immediate changes to be made. Who can blame them? With all the spoils Wisconsin football fans have gotten over the past two decades, a Rose Bowl birth should be a legitimate want from the Badger backers year in and year out.

Now as the Badgers stand with five games left, just hoping to make a bowl game, Wisconsin has to deal with an Illinois offense that just hung 55 points on a conference opponent, an impressive feet no matter the team. When was the last time UW scored 55+ against a conference team? 2003 with Jim Sorgi connecting with Lee Evans for five touchdowns for 258 yards (both school records).

Wisconsin is in a deep rut and, worst yet, have shown no signs that there is light at the end of tunnel. After almost pulling the upset in Madison two years ago, Illinois, a two-point favorite, comes into Madison with a much stronger offense this time around, as the Fighting Illini are averaging 36.1 points per game this season. To put that in prospective, Wisconsin is averaging only 16.3 points the last four weeks.

Sorry Bret, but it seems those once-coveted windbreakers might be heading for the clearance rack for a fifth-consecutive week.

Illinois 36, Wisconsin 16

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 6-1

Against the Spread: 6-1


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