The Illini are coming off their first home Big Ten win in over a calendar year after toppling Michigan State on Dad’s Day last weekend. To keep their bowl hopes alive Illinois will have to run the table, and that starts this Saturday in Madison against Wisconsin. Jake Kocorowski, site manager of the Wisconsin SBNation blog Bucky’s Fifth Quarter, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Badgers.
1. Wisconsin is in year two under Paul Chryst. Heading into this season a lot of people were down on the Badgers given their extremely tough schedule. Describe how the fanbase felt heading into 2016 and then how quickly those expectations changed when they upset LSU.
Heading into the season, many thought Wisconsin would be around .500 or a little higher. That was mostly due to their schedule, though I felt and many in the media also thought this team could actually be better than the 10-win Wisconsin squad from a year ago in Chryst's first season. It just wouldn't have shown in the win-loss column.
After that LSU game, and I was walking to the post-game press conference and saw so many Badgers fans giving high-fives and hugs. The win against the top-10 ranked Tigers was a huge spark, but I think the buzz really came when they beat Michigan State to start the conference season -- despite the Spartans being a shell of what they've been in recent memory. The fact they can play a one-score game against Michigan and Ohio State has shown they can keep with the best in the conference. The next step is landing that final knockout blow, like they should have against the Buckeyes a few weeks back.
Many fans feel UW should run the table in the regular season to make a trip to Indianapolis. From there, who knows? Many are excited with what Chryst has done with the program in bringing back the pro-style, physical offense and keeping the 3-4 defense. He's shown he can recruit as well, as last year, UW was ranked the 23rd-best class in the nation, according to Scout. That's unheard of. Lots of energy here in Madison.
2. Wisconsin has had two different guys start under center for them this season, freshman Alex Hornibrook and fifth-year senior Bart Houston. They don’t rank in the top 100 in the nation in passing yards per game. Who will be starting at QB on Saturday versus Illinois and what do each of these guys bring to the table?
I’m guessing Hornibrook still gets the start, though when the offense has slowed during the games, Chryst has brought in Houston as a change of pace in recent contests.
Hornibrook's a redshirt freshman, and the southpaw has shown a nice touch on his deep ball to allow receivers to make plays. His poise for being in his second year is commendable, and he's the quarterback of the future. Houston has waited his time in his five years at Wisconsin, started the first three games of the season, and now has led some series under center sporadically. He has a rocket of an arm that's been shown in a couple of touchdown passes this year, and he's a bit more mobile, as seen with some designed rollouts.
The problem with both is that they're not consistent and are prone to throwing ill-advised interceptions (see: Nebraska game where each through a pick late in the game). Hornibrook relieved Houston during the Georgia State game when the offense was sputtering on third downs and in the red zone. In that game, he revived the offense in that game in those categories, but Wisconsin's still 114th in the nation in red zone efficiency. Both bring some differences, but honestly there are also similarities between the two, and there wasn't much separation during fall camp.
3. Corey Clement is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and is clearly the Badgers’ best playmaker. In Wisconsin’s two losses, however, Clement has failed to score. Is it fair to say that the Badger offense goes as Corey Clement goes? Who else do they feature on this side of the ball that the Illini D will have to watch out for?
Clement has become the workhorse of an ever improving run game, which has picked up steam since the poor performance against an amazing Michigan defense. I wouldn't necessarily put it on the senior, though. There have been several contributors to the offense that really show the "team" mentality for the Badgers this year. Against Nebraska, team captain and former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale ran for 120 yards on 11 carries (five of his 11 were for over 10 yards) in sparking a running game that was stalled out by a decent Huskers front seven. There's also been the emergence of redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, who carried the ball 11 times for 54 yards and has received more opportunities with his solid play.
Outside of the running backs, redshirt junior wide receiver Jazz Peavy has emerged as a go-to target and become a running threat. Against Northwestern, he gained 144 all-purpose yards -- including a 46-yard touchdown on an end around, and three of his four catches last Saturday were for first downs. He's tied for the team lead in receptions (31) and leads the team in receiving yards. There's also senior wide out Robert Wheelwright and redshirt junior Troy Fumagalli, who both are around 30 catches this year. Despite the juggling at quarterback, the passing game can break out at times (just not consistently).
4. The Badgers have one of the best defenses in the country. They’re allowing only 13 points per game, which ranks third in the country. Who is their biggest contributor on this side of the ball and what has made them so effective at shutting out even top-ranked opponents this year?
The biggest contributor on the stat sheet would be redshirt junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt. He leads the team in sacks (seven), tackles for loss (9.5) and quarterback hurries (eight). The linebackers as a whole really prosper in this 3-4 defense, as at the moment, three of the four leading tacklers on the team are from that position.
However, one of the most underrated units in the country is Wisconsin's defensive line. Chikwe Obaish, Alec James, and Conor Sheehy have really allowed the Badgers linebackers to shoot gaps and play well-disciplined football. Throw in true freshman Garrett Rand in there at nose guard with Sheehy, and both have filled in admirably for sophomore Olive Sagapolu (right arm). In my opinion, the play of that line -- and the talent of the linebacking crew, really has led to offenses trying to throw the ball. The secondary, which was the major question mark in losing three of its four starters from a year ago, has really played well under the guise for former walk-on, three-time All-American and 10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard.
5. Injuries have taken a toll on the Badgers, yet they continue to win games in spite of it. Will linebacker TJ Watt and lineman Olive Sagapolu be able to play this weekend?
Watt was not on the injury list on Monday, leading us to believe he'll be a full go on Saturday. Even if he were out, Wisconsin has depth at that position that has rotated in with Watt and redshirt senior Vince Biegel. Redshirt junior Garret Dooley has really stepped up of late at that position, and redshirt freshman Zack Baun's a converted prep quarterback that is athletic but remaining disciplined.
Sagapolu will be out yet again on Saturday, but as noted earlier, Sheehy and Rand have held down the nose tackle position. Sheehy's strip sack of Clayton Thorson on Saturday turned the tide of what could have been the go-ahead scoring drive for Northwestern. Chryst has praised Sheehy and the defensive line for their work so far this season.
The biggest hole they've filled in is at inside linebacker. Chris Orr and Jack Cichy (the latter who still technically leads the team in tackles) both suffered season-ending injuries, but Wisconsin has their "next man up" mentality in full force this season. Starter T.J. Edwards has been solid since coming back himself from a foot injury suffered before fall camp, and former walk-on Ryan Connelly has shown he can carry the burden of being a starter. He recorded 11 tackles, two for loss, against Nebraska (and was named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week), then also tallied eight against Northwestern. In place of Orr, Connelly recorded seven tackles against LSU -- including a huge third-down stop against Leonard Fournette in the fourth quarter.
6. With three straight weaker divisional opponents coming up, do Badger fans still believe that they can win the Big Ten West?
I think many are hoping for that. Compared to the rest of the schedule earlier this season, Wisconsin has only two losses (compared to the five or six many thought would be accumulated by now). The fans may think the final three games are much easier than the first nine, but honestly, this team knows better than to overlook opponents. Chryst praised his players on Monday for locking in to each week's opponents and goals. Even after their win over LSU, Wheelwright told me that Sunday after -- they'd focus in on Akron. The maturity for this team, for only having a few more than a dozen seniors on this team, is impressive.
7. Finally, who wins on Saturday?
I think Wisconsin keeps up their momentum. Illinois is allowing almost 192 yards on the ground and almost 30 points per game, and the Badgers have made progress in that phase of the game. The defense, I believe, will make the Illini one-dimensional.
Score Prediction: Wisconsin 35, Illinois 10
Thanks again to Jake for answering our questions and be sure to head over to Bucky’s Fifth Quarter for some excellent Wisconsin sports coverage.