CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois has not won a football game in 38 days, and the road to getting back in the win column gets even steeper this week as the Illini welcome Jonathan Taylor and No. 6 Wisconsin to Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The junior running back is in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Through six games Taylor has rushed for 825 yards and 14 touchdowns, adding 136 yards and four scores through the air.
Taylor is averaging three touchdowns per game, all while leading Wisconsin to a 6-0 start. He is third in college football in rushing and leads the FBS in touchdowns.
Taylor’s 18 touchdowns are only six fewer than the Illini have scored all year long.
“Jonathan Taylor is arguably the best player in college football,” said Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith on Monday.
Smith didn’t stop there with his praise of the Heisman hopeful.
“He is excellent between the tackles,” Smith said. “He is fast, on their track team. He has size, power, faster than most people.”
Now, Taylor gets to go up against one of, if not the worst run defense in the Big Ten.
The Illini have given up at least 290 yards rushing in three straight games, allowing five 100-yard rushers in that time.
So, how can they stop the Wisconsin run game, which ranks near the top in college football?
“You have to like contact,” Smith said. “You have to put on your big-boy pads.”
Smith even got into the strategy that goes into stopping the rushing attack.
“You have to gang up to stop the running game,” Smith said. “By doing that, you have to win one-on-one matchups outside.”
A lot will weigh on the secondary to keep Illinois in the game, as it will load up the box to stop Taylor. The Illini defensive backs will need to shut down Wisconsin’s pass game without a lot of help over the top.
“We have to be able to stop them, and make them throw the football,” Smith said.
It would also be beneficial for the Illini to continue to create takeaways. Against the No. 16 team in the country, the Illini forced two fumbles.
“Stanley Green is an impact player,” Smith said of Green, who forced the first fumble. “Tough, physical football player. Caused a couple fumbles, which was good. We’ll need that from him.”
The latter fumble was forced by Jake Hansen, who leads all of college football in that category.
“The guy that does it every week is Jake Hansen,” Smith said. “Jake Hansen has outstanding stats. He has as good of stats as anyone. He is a big play guy who plays as hard as anyone.”
Offensively for Illinois, Lovie Smith has said week after week that this is a running team. But the running game has yet to really get going.
Reggie Corbin, who rushed for over 1,000 yards a year ago, has been held to just 77 yards on 23 carries over the last two games. The Illini need their star running back to get going, but it will be no easier against the highly-ranked rush defense of Wisconsin, which has produced four shutouts in six games.
“It’s coming,” Smith said in reference to the run game. “If you just look at the first half, we’ve identified that too. I’m anxious to see how we finish this second half of the season, as much as anything.”
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith offered his take on the run game as well.
“It’s not like we’ve forgotten how to run and block, it’s a lot of things,” Smith said. “Teams are trying to make you throw the football more to beat them, it’s a numbers game.”
This Saturday’s game will be all about the run game. Can Illinois run the ball against one of the best rush defenses in the country? Can Illinois stop the run against one of the nation’s best rush offenses? Can Illinois play the way Wisconsin has all year long?
The gameplan has worked for the Badgers in every game thus far, leading the Illini to try and put the first blemish on Wisconsin’s record on Saturday at 11 a.m CT on Big Ten Network at Memorial Stadium as the Illini celebrate homecoming.
The Illini play the Badgers next year on Halloween, and when asked about Taylor moving on to the NFL instead of staying in Wisconsin for another year, Smith expressed his content.
“Definitely would be fine with that.”