The Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten) host the Wisconsin Badgers (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten) this Saturday. For the second time in three seasons, Wisconsin is Illinois’ homecoming opponent — and we all remember what happened last time.
Will we see a repeat of those 2019 heroics in 2021? Only time will tell. The Badgers come into this week kinda banged up and looking to stabilize their season. Here’s a closer look at Paul Chryst’s team.
The Badgers scored 34 points in their lone victory against Eastern Michigan, but have averaged just 13.3 ppg in their three losses (Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan).
QB Graham Mertz put on a show in last year’s season-opener versus the Illini: 20-for-21, 248 yards, five TDs — Oh, and there was the whole “head coach knowingly playing him even though he had coronavirus” thing. Unfortunately for ‘Sconny, Mertz threw only four more touchdowns THE REST OF THE SEASON. Early returns for 2021 have been...not great. The redshirt sophomore has averaged just 170 pass yards per game, with a 2-to-6 TD/INT ratio. He’s listed as questionable for Saturday but appears likely to suit up. If Mertz can’t go, backup Chase Wolf (5-for-11, 77 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT) would be next in line.
Wisconsin’s receivers are led by seniors Danny Davis & Kendric Prior. Tight end Jake Ferguson killed the Illini last season, catching three touchdowns in the Badgers’ 45-7 romp. He’ll be a difficult matchup again if he’s healthy. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is also listed as questionable for Saturday.
The running game has always been top priority in Madison, but UW has scuffled the past few weeks. The Fighting Illini will be tasked with stopping tailbacks Chez Mellusi & Isaac Guerendo.
But when you think of Wisconsin Badger football you usually think about offensive linemen. It seems like every year they’re putting a 6-foot-5, 320-pound dude into the NFL — I can think of Joe Thomas, Tyler Biadasz, Travis Frederick, Rob Havenstein, Gabe Carimi & Aaron Gibson just off the top of my head. Perhaps it’s because of this pipeline and track record of success & development that this nugget particularly stood out:
According to Pro Football Focus, Michigan recorded 29 quarterback pressures (hurries, hits and sacks) Saturday against Wisconsin. The Badgers only had 29 passing snaps. Elite pass rush by the Wolverines.— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) October 3, 2021
Michigan’s defense has been terrific, but it’s exceedingly rare to see the Badgers’ o-line get manhandled like that. Wiscy’s o-line issue have no doubt contributed to its struggles running the ball. We’ll have to wait and see if the Illini can get any consistent pressure up front.
Offensive issues aside, the Wisconsin defense remains a stout, stingy unit. DC Jim Leonhard has the Badgers ranked third nationally.
Wisconsin rushing defense has been nearly impregnable, allowing a mere 1.62 yards per carry and 45.2 yards per game. It should then come as no surprise that the Badgers’ opponents have converted just 16-of-59 third down attempts (27.1%), behind only Houston, NC State, and South Alabama.
The Badgers boast a trio of phenomenal linebackers — sophomore Nick Herbig (3.5 sacks), junior Leo Chenal (20 tackles), and senior Jack Sanborn. The 6-foot-2, 236-pound Sanborn entered 2021 on the watchlists for the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award & Butkus Award, among others. The Deer Lake, Ill., native leads the team with 25 tackles and 5.0 TFLs.
If the Badgers’ pass rush can make Brandon Peters uncomfortable it will be a long afternoon for the Illini. Veteran defensive end Matt Henningsen has totaled 4.0 TFLs and 2.0 sacks this season.
Placekicker Collin Larsh has converted 23-of-33 field goal attempts (.696) and is 84-for-85 (.988) on extra-point tries. Senior punter Andy Vujnovich has averaged 47.7 yards per kick with seven punts of 50+ yards.
What to Expect
Wisconsin enters the weekend as a double-digit betting favorite and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Badgers a 69.8% win probability. Both of these figures seem fair at a surface level. Illinois is 2-4 against what should’ve been a fairly manageable early schedule. Wisconsin is 1-3, but has already played three top-15 teams. The Badgers need this win to help turn around their season (they play Army & Purdue the next two weeks) and can’t afford to overlook the Illini like they did in 2019.
This will be a strength-versus-strength matchup — we know Illinois’ ground game is sensational, but can Josh McCray, Chase Brown, and the rest of the Illini backs do enough against the Badgers’ top-ranked rush defense to keep it close and (perhaps) steal another win? I think Paul Chryst’s team is more desparate for the victory and they emerge from Champaign with the win, but — in the words of Lee Corso — it’ll be closer than the experts think.