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These Four Things: Illinois vs. Wisconsin

The Illini are coming off a bye and welcoming one of the best teams in the Big Ten to Champaign on Saturday night. Is there an upset in the cards?

It can't just be Josh Ferguson on Saturday
It can't just be Josh Ferguson on Saturday
Eric Francis


Illinois (3-2, 0-1) vs. No. 25 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1)

Time: 7pm Central
TV: Big Ten Network (Kevin Kugler, Chuck Long, J Leman)
Line: Wisconsin -14.5
Over/Under: 56.5
Forecast: 50 degrees, partly cloudy, 10% chance of rain
Enemy Territory: Bucky's 5th Quarter


1. Hit And Wrap. Without question, one of the toughest things about watching this Illinois defense this season has been the missed tackles. It's one thing when players on defense are missing their assignments or just screwing them up. You aren't happy when that happens, but with such a young unit, you know things like that are going to happen. What truly drives you nuts, though, is when the defense does everything right, is in position to make the play and then misses the tackle.

At least, that drives me insane, and I've seen it quite a bit from this defense so far this season.

Now, I'm not naive enough to think that a bye week is going to fix all the problems on defense. And we can't really use the performance off a bye against Miami as a barometer because Miami is a terrible football team. Still, hopefully things will have improved on Saturday night because while tackling is important against every team, it might not be more important than it will be against this Wisconsin team.

The Badgers are rushing for 298.17 yards per game and 7.07 yards per carry. That yards per carry mark is the best in the country, while the yards per game is only ranked fifth in the country. There's no doubt what this team is going to try to do against Illinois. It'll do the same thing Nebraska tried to do.

It's going to run right at the defense, and there's no reason it shouldn't. The Illini rush defense is ranked 98th in total run defense and 109th in yards per carry. And missed tackles are a huge part of it. Missed tackles are what led to Ameer Abdullah rushing for 225 yards against this defense a few weeks ago, and missed tackles would lead to Melvin Gordon and James White doing much of the same on Saturday night.

Simply put, miss tackles, miss a chance to end your conference losing streak.

2. Get To Third And Short. While people talk a lot about the Wisconsin offense, it's important to know that this Badgers defense is very good as well. It's currently ranked 5th in the country in total defense, and while a lot of that is skewed by games against teams like Tennessee Tech and UMass, in its three conference games Wisconsin is only allowing 270 yards and 15.7 points per game. And those three conference games came against Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue. Also, this defense completely shut down Northwestern last week, and while injuries to Venric Mark and Kain Colter played a role in the final performance, the Wildcats weren't exactly doing much before those two got hurt, either.

In short, the Illini aren't going to have an easy time moving the ball on Saturday night, but they're going to have to in order to have a chance.

It won't just be about putting points on the board, either. The Illini offense is going to need to sustain drives against a good defense, and in order to do that they're going to need to put themselves in good position on third down. In our three wins this season the Illini are 25-for-43 on third down. A 58% conversion rate that is a combination of the opponent and being in manageable third down situations. In our two losses the Illini are 10-for-30 on third down. A 33% conversion rate that's a byproduct of being stuck in third and long situations.

With this Wisconsin front seven you do not want to be getting into third and long situations. Northwestern found themselves in a lot of those situations last week and Wisconsin wound up with seven sacks.

But converting on third down won't just be imperative to keeping the offense on the field. It'll be important for the defense as well. If we want to give the defense a real chance to slow down the Wisconsin offense, we will need to allow them as much time to recover on the sideline each drive. If the Illini offense has three-and-outs repeatedly the defense is going to get worn down quickly and things will snowball from there.

3. Pick Up The Blitz. Wisconsin watched that Nebraska tape. We know that. We also know that Wisconsin saw the kind of success Nebraska had on defense when it blitzed. I don't know how often Wisconsin blitzes as a defense regularly, but we're going to see them blitz on Saturday night unless the Illini prove they can pick it up and make them pay for leaving the receivers in man coverage.

I have no doubt that this Illini offense worked on the blitz during the bye week. Everything from recognizing it before the snap and making sure your hot routes are there, to actually picking it up. While picking it up will fall on the line and the running backs, recognizing it before the snap is Nathan Scheelehaase's responsibility, and it would help everybody out if he does a better job of it than he did against Nebraska.

As we all know, when Nate panics nothing good happens. He's slower to make a decision, and taking a longer time to make a decision is not exactly the approach you want to take when you're being blitzed. He has to see it before the snap and he has to know where he's going with the ball before the snap.

4. Give Josh Ferguson Some Help. Josh Ferguson has been awesome. I don't have a negative thing to say about the kid. However, he's not beating Wisconsin by himself. If the offense is going to put enough points on the board to get a win for the Illini, somebody else will have to step up, and odds are it will have to be another one of the receivers.

Now, one of the beauties of Bill Cubit's offense is the way it spreads the ball around. However, I think Josh Ferguson being the team's leading receiver says a lot more about the players we have at receiver than it does Josh. This Wisconsin defense is very good, but its secondary is young. It'd be nice to see some Illini receivers taking advantage of that this weekend.

Whether it's Ryan Lankford, Martize Barr, Steve Hull or one of our tight ends down the seams, our receivers are going to need to make plays to pull this off. Dropped passes doomed the Illini offense against Washington, and they would be just as devastating against Wisconsin.

It's not just about getting open, but taking advantage of it when you get there.


Fornelli: I want to believe that the bye week will have the Illini prepared to shock the world on Saturday night, and that this Orange Out will be one of the most memorable nights in Illinois football history. It's just, I can't. It's not just that Wisconsin is a good team, it's that I also feel like this team is a matchup nightmare for the Illini. They're greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses, and just too many things would have to go perfectly for the Illini to pull this one out. Wisconsin 38-14 (3-2 on the season).

Primiano: As much as I'd like to believe the Illini could manage another wonderful Wisconsin upset in Champaign like the one I witnessed in 2007, I just don't see it happening. Wisconsin 38-17 (4-1 on the season).

Birkhead: I think this will be the game that will have many realizing the Illini still have a very long way to go in rebuilding the team. I can't see anything but a big win for Wisconsin. They have a great defense and a great running attack. The Illini defensive line is very undersized, and I can already picture Melvin Gordon and James White going untouched through huge holes gaining 20 yards. I want to be more optimistic about this game. I really do, but I can't. Wisconsin 45-10 (3-2 on the season).

Cassidy: Illinois' defense is atrocious, so at best this is a shootout. I don't expect Illinois to win simply because it's Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is always successful and it's annoying. I just hope we keep it close. Wisconsin 42-28 (2-3 on the season).

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