The Illini head into Madison on Homecoming Weekend to face a Badgers squad looking to rebound from a 38-13 loss at Michigan.
I sat down with Jake Kocorowski, editor of Bucky’s 5th Quarter and Co-Author of Walk-On This Way, to get the inside scoop on the Badgers.
Any tips for Illini Fans heading up to Madison on Homecoming Weekend? Spots to eat or tailgate? Homecoming activities they should partake in?
Friday night, there’s the homecoming parade downtown around 6 p.m. which is always fun and family-friendly. I’ll be down there prior at University Bookstore on State Street from 4-5 for a book signing of Walk-On This Way (#CheapPlug, sorry).
Tons of restaurants near or at downtown include State Street Brats, Old Fashioned, Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry (fantastic burgers), Cooper’s Tavern and Tornado Steakhouse (go after 10 p.m. because their late night menu is amazing and not expensive) are among some favorites. About 15-20 minutes north of campus area is a great restaurant called Bierock where we do our weekly podcast shows that has some great food/beer at a more-than-reasonable price. Be sure to try to come in on Friday night to get all of this great food.
Since it’s an 11 a.m. kickoff, it may be hard to get in the restaurants on Saturday, but hang out around Regent Street where there are tons of pregame festivities and parties at local bars. At Union South, there’s a family-friendly Badger Bash where the marching band plays and there’s some food.
At this point last year, Wisconsin was 6-0 and looking very dominant on their way to the Big Ten Championship. This year they are 4-2 and still look pretty good overall, but are no nowhere near as dominant.
What’s lacking from 2017 that isn’t there in 2018?
The first thing is with the defense that lost seven starters and a couple of key contributors in the process as well from a year ago. This is a younger and less experienced defense, even with returning seniors Olive Sagapolu, Andrew Van Ginkel, Ryan Connelly, All-American T.J. Edwards and D’Cota Dixon. They’re not as stout against the run as last year, which was among the nation’s best, and that’s due to some departing seniors that I feel were extremely underrated on the defensive line (Wisconsin’s currently starting two redshirt freshmen, one a former walk-on, one a converted offensive lineman, at defensive end with starter Isaiahh Loudermilk out this week).
The secondary right now is extremely youthful, as last week’s starters included two true freshmen (safety Reggie Pearson and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose), redshirt freshman and converted wide out Deron Harrell and redshirt sophomore safety Eric Burrell. The defensive backfield also is injury-laden, as Dixon, normal starter at free safety Scott Nelson, Pearson and starting corner Faion Hicks are all questionable for Saturday’s game.
Offensively, Wisconsin has the firepower but at times (see: Michigan and BYU) have been inconsistent and not living up to the preseason hype. Jonathan Taylor’s rushed for 100 yards or more in every game this year, including two 200-yard plus efforts, but the unit has stalled at times due to not moving the chains on third downs. It’s cliche, but if Wisconsin converts on third downs, the offense is extremely successful (combined against the Wolverines and Cougars, the Badgers were a combined 5-of-20). Fans will voice their displeasure at quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who had a very bad game at Michigan last week, but he overall this season has played pretty well.
The Badgers’ Defense was extremely stingy under Dave Aranda, Justin Wilcox and in year 1 of Jim Leonhard. Going into this season, a lot of us just expected them to reload on that side of the ball again.
Is it fair to expect Wisconsin to just reload on defense? When can we expect Wisconsin’s D to get back to what they were from 2015 to 2017?
The first two games gave many a false sense of confidence that it Wisconsin could reload that unit, but the last four games have been a different story. I’m not sure it was fair to expect UW to keep the expectations on a Top-5, Top-10 defense based on the attrition seen. On the two-deep right now, eight of the 22 players listed are either true or redshirt freshmen, and that doesn’t include true freshmen corners Wildgoose and Donte Burton plus inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, who all have seen time this year.
They won’t get back to their dominant ways this year. The unit needs to get healthy, and they need to continue to gain experience game by game, snap by snap. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is among one of the up-and-coming assistants in the nation, and deservedly so. With so many injuries currently and a generally inexperienced group of players, he’s had his work cut out for him, but you can see the potential of some of the younger players.
If you were Illinois’ OC, Rod Smith, where would you attack Wisconsin’s defense? Where is the Badgers’ defense the weakest right now?
Michigan was able to run for 320 yards last week, with some help off of a zone read look with quarterback Shea Patterson. Utilizing those type of plays and establishing the run game for Illinois, which I know averages about 229 yards per game on the ground with Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein, could go a very long way in making this a closer game than it should be.
I was always impressed with Paul Chryst as an OC under Brett Bielema and I am equally impressed with what he has done with the Badgers offense since becoming the Head Coach.
What are his strengths as an offensive tactician? What does he he do that makes the Badger’s hard to defend?
Chryst is a player’s coach and truly cares about those in the program. I think that stands out first and foremost as a head coach, especially when you speak with current and former Badgers. Offensively, I’m not sure there’s much magic outside of a coach that runs his scheme well, is a great evaluator of talent and puts his players in the best positions possible to make players, whether that’s fun packages (see the “Jumbo” look against Iowa where they had seven offensive linemen pummeling the Hawkeyes’ front seven) or finding the right personnel for plays. Wisconsin still is a run-orientated, physical offense, but it does have some impressive wide receivers as well that when the offense is rolling, can make some plays to alleviate eight or more defenders in the box.
There’s also some fun uses of fullback Alec Ingold, who can be used in 3rd-and-short situations on fullback dives, out of the backfield for play action (see 33-yard reception at Iowa), and even being used in the run game on sweeps or end arounds (see also 33-yard touchdown run to put away Iowa late in the fourth quarter).
I feel we have not seen them really open the playbook fully, though I almost think it’s unfair to say so since I’m not a coach. We’ll see what comes against Illinois on Saturday.
What is your game prediction?
I think Wisconsin rebounds on homecoming weekend, though I think Illinois will be able to run the ball to a decent extent to make it more interesting. If Hornibrook throws an interception or two, that could make things even more intriguing. Ultimately, UW will be able to establish the ground game against a unit that gives up nearly 200 yards per contest, and the defense stuffs Illinois’s run game enough.
I’ll say 41-17 Wisconsin before they head off to Northwestern next week.
Thank you to Jake for talking with us!
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