Illinois welcomes the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers to Champaign for Homecoming Weekend on Saturday. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for this week.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor vs. Illinois run defense
Another year, another dominant Wisconsin rushing attack. This season feels a little bit different, though. Why? Because true freshman Jonathan Taylor not only beat out more experienced guys we thought would get a majority of the snaps (see Bradrick Shaw and Chris James) but he’s on pace to have one of the greatest rushing seasons in Big Ten history.
Jonathan Taylor reached 1,000 rush yards on the season in his 7th game— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 21, 2017
That matches the FBS record for fewest games needed by a freshman pic.twitter.com/mJibbQ8xwc
Led by Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin has the conference’s top-ranked rushing offense. Taylor and the big boys upfront are going up against an Illinois team that ranks last against the run and was unable stop Rutgers and Minnesota from dominating the ground game.
The Fighting Illini do not have a fundamentally sound tackling team. The only player who has proven he can do much of anything against the run is safety Bennett Williams. Illinois needs to recruit more players like Bennett Williams or this defense is not going to improve much in the next couple of years.
Illinois’ inconsistent rushing attack vs. Wisconsin’s dominant run defense
Not only are the Wisconsin Badgers the best Big Ten team at running the football, they are the best at stopping their opponents’ run game too. Wisconsin’s defense leads the conference in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed with just two. They hold their opponents to under three yards-per-carry.
That’s a problem for the Illinois Fighting Illini, considering head coach Lovie Smith time and time again has said he needs his football teams to use the run game to open up the pass. That’s a problem for an Illinois team battling injuries, the most important of which is clearly the season-ending injury to true-freshman running back Mike Epstein. Reggie Corbin is also battling injury issues. Kendrick Foster and Ra’Von Bonner will have to get the job done if the Illini have any shot of keeping this game close.
Ra'Von Bonner's first-quarter TD was Illinois' 8th straight offensive TD by a true freshman.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) October 21, 2017
10 of Illinois' 12 offensive touchdowns (83.3 percent) have been scored by true freshmen.
It’s not so much scoring touchdowns as it is keeping the Wisconsin offense off the field and extending drives and killing the clock. Wisconsin pummels teams with time of possession. The Illini need to not be at the mercy of Wisconsin’s game control.
Illinois explosive plays vs. Wisconsin’s sound pass defense
In order for the Illinois Fighting Illini to notch their first win over Wisconsin since the 2007 Rose Bowl season, the Champaign crowd will need to see some explosive plays from the Illini offense and/or special teams.
Keep building for the future. Make Cam Thomas the one and only starter for #Illini football. https://t.co/XnWdRrTKEc— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) October 22, 2017
True freshman Ricky Smalling has shown flashes of talent and an ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands. Another true freshman, quarterback Cam Thomas showed he can run the football in big, 10, 15, 20-yard bursts. The Illini will need a couple of monster, long-yardage plays to go their way in order to have any shot against the Wisconsin Badgers.
On the flip-side, Wisconsin’s offense can lull defenses into loading the box. The Badgers love to run the ball several times in a row before trying a play-action, deep pass down the field with quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Wisconsin forces teams to commit to stopping the run before occasionally letting it loose in the pass-game. The Illini defense (and frankly, any defense in the country) will bend against these Badgers. It’s important not to break and let any receivers run past the safeties in the deep-ball passing game.