Fighting Illini football is back, baby! The Orange & Blue kickoff the season in Madison on Friday night. Illinois has a daunting task in trying to upset Wisconsin in the season opener. Paul Chryst enters year six as head coach of the Badgers, who are coming off a B1G West championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Wisconsin is again the preseason favorite in the division and return plenty of talent from last season’s 10-win team. Illinois will aim to shock the nation for the second straight year, while the Badgers seek to erase 2019’s loss from their memory. Here’s how Bucky’s boys stack up.
Wisconsin has had a long history of “game manager” quarterbacks — Jim Sorgi, Scott Tolzien, Joel Stave, Alex Hornibrook, just to list a few. The latest in that line was Jack Coan, who took over for Hornibrook as the Badgers’ starter midway through 2018. Coan completed 70% of his throws last season and passed for 2,727 yards & 18 TDs in 14 games (granted, having Jonathan Taylor as his lead back may have had something to do with that). The incumbent QB sustained a foot injury in early October and is now out indefinitely. Enter redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. The 2018 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year tossed a state-record 51 touchdowns as a high school senior and adds big-play ability to a Badgers side that traditionally hasn’t relied on the air attack. Paul Chryst — a former QB — must be ecstatic having Mertz in the fold.
It’s almost impossible to expect any one back to replace the production of Jonathan Taylor, who finished as the NCAA’s fourth-all-time leading rusher in only three seasons. But, as the football cliche goes, next man up. Senior Garrett Groshek & redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson enter 2020 atop the Badgers depth chart. Groshek totaled 42 carries for 198 yards and two TDs on the ground, but he showed tremendous value as a pass-catcher. The former walk-on had 29 receptions for 289 yards out of the backfield, including a career-high six catches for 40 yards at Illinois last year.
Watson — similarly built to Groshek at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds — served as Taylor’s primary backup last year, logging 74 carries for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
Danny Davis II is the Badgers’ leading returning wideout, hauling in 30 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown. Chicagoland native and fellow senior Kendric Pryor averaged 12.1 yards per reception and 13.8 yards per carry in 2019. Junior tight end Jake Ferguson led Wisconsin in catches (33) and yards (407) and was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last season. He enters 2020 on the watchlist for the John Mackey Award. Oh, and you may have heard that he’s Barry Alvarez’s grandson.
The Badgers’ starting offensive line AVERAGES 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds. The leader of the unit is preseason All-American left tackle Cole Van Lanen. The fifth-year senior enters 2020 on the Outland Trophy watchlist. Resdhirt juniors Tyler Beach & Logan Bruss are currently listed as co-number-ones at right tackle.
Jim Leonhard has done an incredible job as the defensive coordinator at his alma mater. Through his first four seasons, Wisconsin has ranked third nationally in points per game allowed (17.2, including four shutouts in 2019), and second in takeaways (104).
The Badgers boast a trio of productive, experienced defensive ends — Matt Henningsen (24 tackles, four sacks, two defensive TDs), Isaiahh Loudermilk (24 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles) and Garrett Rand (27 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble).
Wisconsin loses All-Conference linebackers Zack Baun & Chris Orr and their 24 combined sacks, but it was actually ILB Jack Sanborn who led the Badgers in tackles last season (80). The Lake Zurich alum started all 14 games as a sophomore, recording 5.5 sacks, and matching the team high in interceptions (3). Like the Illini’s Jake Hansen, Sanborn enters 2020 on the Butkus Award watchlist.
The Badgers are also incredibly deep in the defensive backfield. Senior Eric Burrell is a ball-hawking safety who logged 55 tackles, three interceptions, and seven pass breakups this past season. Houston transfer Collin Wilder totaled 19 tackles and seven PBUs in his first season in Madison.
Caesar Williams is one of the best cover corners in the Big Ten. The 6-foot, 190-pounder led Wisconsin with 12 passes defensed in 2019. Faion Hicks registered 32 tackles last season. Rachad Wildgoose — in addition to having a tremendous name — has averaged seven PBUs in his first two seasons.
This unit doesn’t make many mistakes, and will take advantage of yours. Illinois will have to earn everything it gets in this matchup.
Redshirt freshman speedster Stephan Bracey is atop Paul Chryst’s depth chart at kick returner. A high school state track champion, Bracey won’t need much daylight to make you pay. Senior Jack Dunn is back as Wisconsin’s primary punt returner. The diminuitive Dunn led the Big Ten with 8.3 yards per punt return in 2019.
Junior placekicker Collin Larsh connected on 53 of 54 extra points and 12 of 18 field goal attempts last season, his first as a starter. Freshman Jack Van Dyke will handle kickoffs for the Badgers.
Conor Schlichting & Andy Vujnovich are each listed as the starter at punter. Neither one of them are Blake Hayes.
What To Expect
The short answer is...who the hell knows?
Everyone in the Big Ten except for Ohio State seems to be on fairly level ground; the stakes are basically the same. There’s no tape to watch and minimal media access. We probably won’t know much for a while. The West division could be up for grabs, and in a shortened season with no out-of-conference games, the margin for error for a team like Wisconsin is pretty small. The Badgers will get a lot of teams’ best shot, and I would certainly lump Illinois in with that group.
This should be the most complete team of the Lovie era, but until I see an improvement in discipline I find it hard to see the Illini pulling this one out on the road. Illinois likely won’t have the same kind of serendipitous moments they experienced on Homecoming last year.
But we’ve seen in 2020 that ANYTHING is possible, so maybe I’ll eat these words come Friday night...