Another week, another ranked Big Ten opponent coming to Champaign to play Lovie Smith’s Illinois Fighting Illini. The Wisconsin Badgers are flying high after shutting down Michigan State last Saturday afternoon, 38-0, a beatdown that was actually much worse for MSU than the scoreline appears.
Wisconsin’s dominance cannot be understated. The Badgers have shutout four teams this season: Michigan State 38-0, Kent State 48-0, Central Michigan 61-0 and South Florida 49-0. Even with all of those shutouts, their nationally televised game against Michigan a few weeks ago was a savage beating as well — and their most impressive performance to date.
The Badgers are on a collision course with Ohio State. That game is on Oct. 26 at The Horseshoe.
First, they have Illinois.
When Wisconsin has the football
The frustrating thing about playing Wisconsin is how gimmick-less this offense is. There’s not much trickery, there’s not a whole lot of spread-em-out screen type stuff going on with the wide receivers. Wisconsin essentially tells you what play they’ll run beforehand, and they dare you to stop it.
“We will run the ball straight down your throat. Try to stop us.” is essentially what happens.
This works because of consistent, smart offensive line play using multiple big bodies and multi-tight end and fullback sets. The leader of the o-line is Tyler Biadasz and he’s a complete mauler as a run blocker. He has over 30 starts in his Wisconsin career and is rated by Pro Football Focus as the top center in college football. Mix in some play action passes, and this offense is unstoppable and hard to get off of the field.
Running back Jonathan Taylor leads the country in rushing touchdowns (14) and this season he’s added another element to his game — he can catch passes out the backfield. This season he already has 16 catches, and four of those were for touchdowns. In his sophomore and freshman seasons combined, he had just 14 catches and no scores.
The Michigan State game last week was the only game thus far this season that Jonathan Taylor did not rush for more than 100 yards. That mainly had to do with the fact that Wisconsin decided to pull Taylor with over with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter — the Badgers up 38-0 at that point.
Jack Coan has played surprisingly well... Graham Mertz is planning to redshirt
Most national college football writers and including those on the local beat thought that Wisconsin was going to showcase its true freshman blue-chip quarterback Graham Mertz this season. Mertz enrolled at Wisconsin with a ton of hype — the most prized quarterback recruit in the history of Wisconsin Badgers football.
Mertz appeared in just two games this season (completing 90 percent of his passes, by the way) before saying he plans to take a redshirt for 2019. He is the future of Wisconsin Football, but he might not be playing anymore until 2020.
Junior quarterback Jack Coan has been lights out, managing Wisconsin’s offense and hardly making any mistakes in the process. He’s as solid as they come, completing 76.3 percent of his 135 passes for 1,117 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception. Mistake-free football is the name of the game when you have the 11th-best rush offense in the nation.
Wisconsin is the prototypical Big Ten offense. Control the line of scrimmage. Control the clock. Control the game. Against Michigan State last week, the Badgers held the ball for twice as long as Michigan State did — 39:10 compared to Michigan State’s 20:50.
When the Badgers have to (or want to) throw, wide receiver Quintez Cephus is the primary threat deep down the field. After missing the 2018 season, he is back and has 19 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns so far in 2019.
When Illinois has the football
It’s downright scary when you look at Wisconsin’s defense and the stats they’ve put up. Forget the quality of opponent for a second — four shutouts in six games rarely happens in college football.
Wisconsin leads the country in fewest points allowed per game by far. Wisconsin leads the country in fewest yards allowed per game by far. When Illinois hosts Wisconsin on Saturday, it’ll be facing — and it’s hard to argue against this — the best defense in the country.
Where the #Badgers defense ranks nationally through six games:— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 13, 2019
Rush defense: No. 1
Pass defense: No. 1
Total defense: No. 1
Scoring defense: No. 1
Yards per play allowed: No. 1
Pass efficiency defense: No. 1
Third-down defense: No. 1
They put daggers through the hearts of opponents, so much so that they’ve caused Wolverines and Spartans fans to go into full-on meltdown mode. Beating Michigan State 38-0 creates a sort of apocalyptic thought in the minds of Michigan State diehards: Is Mark Dantonio really the guy to lead Sparty now and into the future? This Badger D demoralizes opponents in ways that even Michigan and Ohio State of the last few years cannot really compare. Wisconsin’s defense forces opponents’ athletic directors across the country to re-evaluate if the current head coach is the right one to lead the program... hint, hint.
There are so many standouts on this defense. One guy to really focus in on is senior linebacker Zack Baun. Baun leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, including 6.0 sacks thus far on the season. He’s incredibly athletic and agile for someone who weighs 235 pounds playing off of the edge. He scored on a 34-yard pick-6 in the Michigan State game last week:
It’s hard to say where exactly Wisconsin has weaknesses on defense because frankly they haven’t shown any cracks thus far. It’s early in the season, but to this point Wisconsin’s D is displaying some legendary, once-in-a-generation-type of statistics and performances.
Special Teams Notes
When Wisconsin dominates so much on both sides of the ball, special teams can be an afterthought and have little impact on the game itself. That seems to be the case so far in Wisconsin’s blowout victories.
Sophomore kicker Collin Larsh has replaced longtime Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone. Larsh has made 34 of 35 extra points and is 3 for 6 on field goal attempts. Kicker Zach Hintze handles the kickoffs and regularly boots them for touchbacks.
Small receiver Aron Cruickshank handles the bulk of the kickoff returns, and he does a nice job with those. He had a 38-yard return to open the game against Michigan State, setting the tone early for what the Badgers were trying to do. He’s electric when he has some space, so Illinois has to be wary of kicking the ball directly to him.
In the punt return game, Jack Dunn is the main guy (though he suffered an injury against MSU), and so far this season, Wisconsin hasn’t done much of anything significant returning punts.