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TCR Staff Predictions: Illinois vs. Wisconsin

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Take the under.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Lawton: Wisconsin 17, Illinois 13

This will likely be one of the more competitive games in the matchup in recent memory, sans the 2019 homecoming thriller. Illinois is coming off a nice win against Charlotte fueled by a huge day on the ground from Chase Brown. Wisconsin meanwhile got blown out at home against Michigan and lost their starting quarterback Graham Mertz in the process, who is still questionable to go this week. This Badger team has lacked its usual consistency on offense and has struggled to find itself this season, ranking only 99th in total offense (352.5 YPG) and just behind Illinois (98th, 355.3 YPG). Their subpar running game (T-64th, 163 YPG) has put them in some tough spots where they’ve had to rely on Mertz to throw and he hasn’t delivered consistently this season, as the Badgers have just the 102nd ranked passing attack this season (189.5 YPG) while surrendering 8 interceptions so far (T-122nd). Fortunately for the Badgers, Illinois has been even worse through the air (117th, 168.2 YPG) while frequently surrendering big plays on defense with gaping holes in their porous secondary (T-119th, 292.2 passing yards allowed per game).

Despite the Badgers’ offensive struggles this season, some hallmarks of consistent Badger football still remain. While the Illini come in with the 40th ranked rushing offense (187.2 YPG), the record setting rushing yards from last week won’t likely come so easily in this one, as the Badgers have the #1 rushing defense to this point on the season (45.2 YPG) and #3 total defense (249 YPG). The Badgers also haven’t beaten themselves by giving the opposition many extra opportunities, ranking 3rd in fewest penalty yards (140) and tied 9th in fewest penalties (20). This poses significant problems for the Illini who need a consistent running game and free penalty yardage to fuel their similarly challenged offense.

In a battle of similar styles, Wisconsin’s defense will hold up to keep their sputtering offense in the game by minimizing Illinois’ running attack and getting some pressure on Illini QB Brandon Peters, and they’ll leave Champaign with a narrow victory.

Blake Dietz: Illinois 16, Wisconsin 27

Unfortunately, this is one of the worst matchups for the Illini. Wisconsin is exceptional at stopping the run and the Illini’s only offensive threat are their halfbacks. Brandon Peters has not shown an ability to lead drives, but he’ll likely have to for Illinois to have a chance. I believe Bielema may finally turn to Art Sitkowski if the game is close and Peters isn’t getting the job done.

Fortunately, Ryan Walters’ defense appears to be improving. Though handicapped by mediocre cornerback play, Walters is scheming his players far better than the previous regime. With Wisconsin’s offensive struggling, I see a low scoring game similar to the first three quarters of 2019’s homecoming game. I think Illinois keeps it relatively close, but without the 2019 turnover magic, Wisconsin outlasts the Illini.

Thumpasaurus: Wisconsin 17, Illinois 3

I have to be direct: the Fighting Illini offense is not up to the task of moving the ball against the #3 defense in the country. Wisconsin has shut down some good offense but lost games because their own offense couldn’t move the ball (and in several cases, moved it backwards). Our defense is certainly playing better than it did in the first three games, but is still worse than any defense Wisconsin has lost to. This score would be bigger if not for the disparity between the special teams units. Nebraska is the only top-30 defense Illinois has played, and they caught the Huskers in a stupor. There remains a vast gulf between Nebraska’s defense and Wisconsin’s.

You may have seen some of the things other teams did to Wisconsin’s defense and thought “hey, maybe Illinois can do that.” All three of those teams that beat Wisconsin recruit at a national championship level and have quarterback play far exceeding that of Illinois, in addition to a bevy of receivers that would immediately be Illinois’ top choice. Brown/McCray will not be able to do what Brown/Corbin did a couple years ago due to the simple fact that there’s no Josh Imatorbhebhe level threat in the passing game to account for, and without a game-breaker who can catch contested balls like Josh, Brandon Peters can’t beat the Badgers even if they put 8 in the box to stop the Illini rushing game. If Maryland can sell out on the inside run without Illinois ever making them pay for it, you can damn well expect Wisconsin can do the same.

As Wisconsin’s offense looks worse and worse, the Illini defense looks to have a better and better chance of containing them, but with such a huge canyon between the Illini offense and the Wisconsin defense, all it’ll do for us is keep Wisconsin in sight but out of reach. This will be what I like to call the Gentleman’s Blowout, where Wisconsin scores first and probably goes 10-0 and then the lead doesn’t ever get much bigger, but Illinois is never in a position to actually challenge that lead as Wisconsin prioritizes running out the clock.

Honestly, this is a case where the offense is so limited that Petersen’s penchant for running it into the middle of the line for no gain will actually work to our benefit because it’ll limit our ability to lose field position by turning it over. The only chance Illinois has to win in this game is for Blake Hayes to be on fire, the defense to keep Wisconsin under 4 yards per carry and a positive turnover margin. These are two of the worst red zone offenses. Kick early and often here, win the battle for field position and Wisconsin could be had in an absolutely hideous game that would surely horrify their fans.

The odds are very long on that proposition, however.

Drew Pastorek: Wisconsin 21, Illinois 13

I was ALMOST lured into picking the Illini based on how Wisconsin has looked the past few weeks. Then Thump tweeted some stuff about fans talking themselves into winning and I felt personally attacked.

Wisconsin’s offense has struggled and the Badgers’ protection was shockingly bad against Michigan last week. But Jim Leonhard’s defense is still as good as ever, and Illinois sputtered against Charlotte’s 123rd-ranked D. The Fighting Illini have a tremendous dual-threat running game with Chase Brown & Josh McCray. If they can manage to break through the Badgers’ front and move the chains, Illinois won’t have to rely as much on the quarterback. Ultimately, though, I think this will come down to which side does the little things better. Wisconsin is a well-disciplined team, whereas Illinois is notorious for committing untimely and/or careless penalties. Brandon Peters tends to hold on to the ball too long, which has led to sacks and the Illini playing behind the chains. Illinois has created 11 takeaways this season, and Wisconsin has 11 turnovers.The Illini also hold the edge on special teams thanks to the glorious left leg of Blake Hayes.

However, a “meh” Wisconsin squad is almost always going to outplay a “meh” Illinois squad, and — as Thump just pointed out — there aren’t enough big plays in the passing game to make the Badgers sweat, and Wisconsin has played damn good competition thus far. More than any other game this season, this contest will be determined by controlling the clock and line of scrimmage. The Badgers — despite their recent woes — are the more reliable, trustworthy football team. Bret Bielema will earn his 100th career win this season (book it!) but it won’t be against his former team.

Oh, and take the damn under.

Mihir Chavan - Illinois +10.5

What it comes down to is can the Illinois offense produce. I think we see some Art out there and some crazy trick plays where Isaiah Williams is throwing out of a screen. Like we saw against Nebraska, Bielema is going to pull out all the tricks from his sleeve. This is his new team against his old team. There are a lot of ramifications in this game as much as Bielema says there aren’t. It is Bielema’s first chance to play Wisconsin. Majority of this team beat a far better Wisconsin team two years ago. With the dub, Bielema gets win number 100 on homecoming day, cementing in the minds of Illini fans that there is progress being made. Although Art and Isaiah get some passes, BP finally clicks and gets his team into gear like he did 2 years ago. The explosion of the running game allows the passing game to succeed. Like it has been in the last three weeks, the defense keeps the game competitive. The offense needs to finally step up and score points. I won’t predict a win, but good teams win, great teams cover. Illinois is a great team.

Matt Rejc: Wisconsin 14, Illinois 10

Both teams have fairly decent defenses, but both also have very limited offensive units. I see this as a slow slog of a game, where Wisconsin jumps out to a small early lead and maintains it even though they can’t quite put the Illini away until the very end. It’s entirely possible that Illinois wins this game, but it’s also very possible that the Badgers win in a blowout fashion. I think the result ends up somewhere in the middle but in favor of Wisconsin.

Quentin Wetzel: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 13

This isn’t the Wisconsin team we’ve gotten used to over the past 30 years — one might even say these aren’t Bret Bielema’s Badgers. But even in a relative down year, Wisconsin is still a whole lot better than Illinois. The Badgers do have a legitimately bad offense, but… so do the Illini. And unlike Illinois, Wisconsin’s defense is elite. Illinois does have a path to victory if Graham Mertz throws an interception or two as he is wont to do. Most likely though, Wisconsin takes care of business and makes Illinois’ homecoming a disappointing one.