Today we are glad to welcome Jake Kocorowski to help us preview Illinois’ Homecoming matchup against the #5 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday at 11 AM CT. Jake is an editor/writer at Bucky’s 5th Quarter, SB Nation’s Wisconsin Badgers site. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the undefeated — and possibly overlooked? — Badgers.
1. Wisconsin has a pretty good path to 12-0 and are almost guaranteed to win the Big Ten West. Only a game against Michigan has cause for pause, but that is a home game for the Badgers. Assuming this team does indeed finish 12-0, how would you rate this team's chances of taking out Penn State or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game and making the College Football Playoff? And is Wisconsin this good or is the Big Ten West that bad?
JK: Great questions. I actually had a conversation with a fellow beat writer after last week's win about the chances between Penn State vs. Ohio State. I think Wisconsin's chances of matching up against Penn State may be better in the Big Ten Championship game than Ohio State. Other teams have bottled up Saquon Barkley on the ground, though we've seen what he can do in the passing and return games and James Franklin's crew is averaging 3.4 sacks per contest. Ohio State has a multitude of weapons. This weekend's game between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes really should determine the Big Ten East, but either one would be the staunchest test the Badgers have faced all year as their strength of schedule isn't great (though these schedules are planned out far in advance).
Honestly, I believe Wisconsin would have a shot against either, but they'd have to stop shooting themselves in the foot with untimely penalties and turnovers. UW is its own worst enemy with its inconsistent offense, which has still put up 36.6 points and 462.7 yards per game. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has his one or two "oopsy" plays per contest, while some fumbles have allowed opponents to have prime field position to put up points. The defense is a top-five, top-ten defense despite being on its third coordinator in as many years, but even without T.J. Watt or Vince Biegel, is performing at a high level. Maybe they have not been tested as well as other teams in the conference, but once the offense is consistent for an entire game, this 2017 squad is potent.
To answer your last question, yes. Wisconsin can be that good, and the Big Ten West equals sad face/trombone emoji. I honestly thought Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska would all challenge more, but here's UW with a two-game lead already (three if you include tiebreakers) almost a month away from the season ending. A LOT can happen between now and the end of the regular season (see: injuries or other unforeseen circumstnaces), but the Badgers are in the driver's seat in this division.
2. Gary Andersen resigned at Oregon State and Bret Bielema is on the hot seat at Arkansas. Why do you think these Wisconsin coaches have found little success after leaving Madison?
JK: Because leaving the isthmus of Madison is like leaving "The Island" in the hit ABC TV show, "Lost." Just weird stuff happens when you leave the island, man.
Honestly, Bielema leaving I could understand in the sense of him making his own name and trying to do something against the SEC at the time (though the way he did it is less than great). Andersen, well, we've detailed right after he left for Oregon State and just earlier this month. The latter tried to go away from Wisconsin's prototypical style of success, hurting relationships with in-state high school coaches while trying to molding an offense into what was seen at Utah State (there was also the talk of frustrations with the admissions folk at UW as well).
Why they've found "little success" is I think dependent upon where they landed more than any jinx on them for leaving the university. Bielema--who followed Barry Alvarez's blueprint and knew how to win at Wisconsin--found himself facing Nick Saban's Alabama, LSU, Auburn, etc. every single year in the SEC West, and the results have been disappointing down in Arkansas to say the least. Andersen seemed like he had some difficulty in Corvallis as well on multiple fronts, but suddenly quitting in the middle of the season and departing in surprising fashion (again) as he did with Wisconsin is poor form.
3. I'll just say it, are y'all horny for Hornibrook? *
(*Writer’s note, I do not apologize for this)
JK: Wisconsin fans, with every quarterback after Russell Wilson, have been in a love and hate relationship with each year's signal caller. Hornibrook is no exception. When given time in the pocket and is not thrown off rhythm, he can sling it with accuracy and precision, and his arm strength has improved a bit compared to last year. As mentioned earlier, however, he has had some "oopsy" plays the past few weeks that fans have not been happy about (to his credit, he owns his mistakes). Against Purdue two weeks ago, he threw two interceptions that gave the Boilermakers great field position. He threw a pick-six at Nebraska, and then threw two interceptions in the conference opener against Northwestern.
That being said, he's completing nearly 66 percent of his passes and has thrown for over 200 yards in four of Wisconsin's seven games (he's narrowly missed that mark with games of 197 and 199 yards). That's led to a pretty balanced offense with some play-makers that I'll mention later. He's also been clutch on third downs, completing 28 of 46 passes for 449 yards with six touchdown passes compared to three interceptions. Only four other quarterbacks in the nation have a better passing efficiency on that down (166.5) with at least 30 attempts.
So, it's really a mixed bag. For Wisconsin to beat a Penn State or Ohio State and to clinch a CFP berth, he'll need to reduce mistakes and stay accurate while moving the chains.
4. Fans and Media both often overlook how good the Badger defense is when talking about Wisconsin and focus mainly on the running game and the offensive line. Wisconsin is only giving up 13.3 points per game and 265 yards per game. What makes this defense work so well?
JK: Coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former walk-on turned All-American turned 10-year NFL veteran, knows how to utilize his players' strengths. It's what all good coaches do, and he's kept the 3-4 base scheme implemented from Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox before him (remember, Leonhard essentially quarterbacked Rex Ryan-style defenses in Baltimore and New York). Though he's in his first year as a coordinator, his players are playing at a high level. The defensive line is completely underrated, as the likes of seniors Conor Sheehy and Alec James, along with junior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, really plug the gaps and allow the linebackers to make plays. It goes beyond that even more, as James is fifth on the team in tackles and has shown an ability to get in the backfield. Sagapolu registered a sack last week as well.
The outside linebackers are led by Garret Dooley (5.5 sacks) and Leon Jacobs, who have combined for 14.5 tackles for loss. Jacobs in particular is a physical freak, with a combination of speed and strength that could allow him to play on Sundays. Despite Jack Cichy's ACL tear during the spring, the likes of T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly have started and excelled in his place. I've always been impressed with the run and pass defense of Edwards, who had a pick-six last week and also led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Edwards currently leads the team in interceptions (three) while also ranking second in tackles and third in tackles for loss (4.5).
Lastly, though UW lost two key secondary starters from last year, the unit is solid and continuing to evolve further. Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson has 10 pass break-ups this season (second in the conference), with eight in the past four conference games. Strong safety D'Cota Dixon, I believe, is the heart and soul of this defense as one of its captains, and he's stepped up to lead the team in tackles. Converted cornerback Natrell Jamerson is progressing nicely at free safety to replace team MVP Leo Musso, and he's looking more and more comfortable each game.
5. Who are the main players that Illinois should be on the lookout for on Saturday?
JK: I basically gave the rundown of the defense, so I'll give you the lowdown on the offense.
Everyone loves Jonathan Taylor, the true freshman who leads the Big Ten in rushing and is among one of the breakout stars of the 2017 season. Even as a first-year player, he shows a patience, vision and maturity beyond his years seven games into his college football career. Combine that with his balance, power and speed, and he could be one of the best backs Wisconsin has seen in its history. They've only scratched the surface of what he can do, as he joined the likes of Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson and Marshall Faulk as freshmen who rushed for 1,000 yards in their first seven games.
Taylor has already registered three 200-yard plus games, and has won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award four times. He really hasn't even been included much in the passing game, which he showed he could be potent at with a 20-yard reception last week. He has lost three fumbles this season, including one each in the past two games. With Illinois forcing takeaways in that phase of the game, he'll have to protect the football.
The offensive line is at its best since the 2014 season, and there's a lot of game experience with the likes of left tackle Michael Deiter and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Preseason All-American tight end Troy Fumagalli regained form last week against Maryland after battling injuries since the bye week. He helps stabilize the offense as a blocker and pass catcher. Then there's a young crop of wide receivers, most notably sophomore Quintez Cephus, who has become a consistent threat in the passing game.
6. Give us your prediction for the game. And how many points will Wisconsin be up when they call off the dogs?
I'll go 41-3 Wisconsin. With Illinois being worst in the conference rushing the ball and Wisconsin only giving up 88 yards per game in that area, that will force Illinois to throw. The Badgers average just over three sacks a game, while the Illini give up a little more than 2.5 behind their young line. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and is ranked No. 2 in the nation in third down conversions. With Illinois giving up almost 211 yards per game rushing and UW gaining over 256 per contest on the ground, I feel it could be a long day for Lovie Smith's defense. If the reserves aren't in by the start of the fourth quarter, that would be a storyline in my book.
Thanks again to Jake Kocorowski for joining us this week. You can find Jake on Twitter @JakeKocoB5Q.