Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Time to talk about our neighbors to the North, the
The timeline for Illinois losing institutional memory of hating Michigan deeply (late 2000s) is around the time Wisconsin lost institutional memory of not being particularly good at football. The Badgers have been infuriatingly consistent over the last 25 years. To get an idea of how consistent, their last losing season was so long ago that Illinois was the Big Ten champion.
Wisconsin started playing in 1889 and basically did nothing of note outside of producing 1954 Heisman winner Alan Ameche until the fourth year of Barry Alvarez’ tenure as head coach. That season, they won the Big Ten and went to their first Rose Bowl in 30 years. Ever since, with Alvarez coaching until his ascendance to athletic director where he remains today, the Badgers have seen only two losing seasons, a 4-win and a 5-win campaign with another Rose Bowl trip and a Heisman winner in back Ron Dayne in between them.
Since the 2014 inception of the Big Ten West, it’s been Wisconsin’s division to lose every single year. They’ve blown it 4 times (2 each to Northwestern and Iowa) in eight tries. As coaches come and go, Wisconsin remains the same, running the ball behind a homegrown offensive line and playing tough defense in a 3-4 alignment. This is just fine for Badgers fans because winning more than you lose is a lot of fun.
Or so I’ve heard.
You can almost think of Wisconsin as the strongest human character in a fantasy setting, where the talent gap isn’t so insurmountable that there’s no pathway to victory. They always have a star running back who gets a ton of carries, very good linebacker play and a quarterback that half the fans want to bench.
History vs. Illinois
To give you an idea of just how irrelevant Wisconsin was prior to 1993, they had a losing record against Illinois until 2014. Considering the default state of Illinois for the past 55 years has been “trapped in a dark basement stepping on rakes,” that’s pretty remarkable.
The one exception was the period from Mike White’s arrival in 1980 until Lou Tepper lost control of the ship in 1995. A season-ending 3-3 tie against a thoroughly mediocre Wisconsin team officially pronounced the end of Illinois as a fringe contender in the Big Ten.
If you got into Illinois, you’re probably smart enough to infer how the series has gone since then, as Illinois has fielded three good teams while Wisconsin has fielded just one losing team in that timeframe. Alvarez won 6 of his next 8 against Illinois before handing the reins to one Bret Bielema. His only loss to Illinois was in 2007 when he had the misfortune of running into the only good Fighting Illini team of the last 20 years.
After 2007, there were two types of games against Wisconsin: games where we’d stay within striking distance in a low-scoring game, but never close a gap of 7 to 13 points, and games where the Badgers would repeatedly steamroll the Illini defense until truly horrifying rushing numbers appeared.
This kept up until 2019, when current Badgers coach Paul Chryst lost in Champaign as a 38-point favorite by being too conservative on offense. We’ve covered that game here:
In the 2020 edition, Lovie Smith’s defense allowed quarterback Graham Mertz to complete 20 of 21 passes for 5 touchdowns. Mertz has since been exposed as a liability…unless your opponent was the 2020 Illini.
Last year, of course, was a game in which it didn’t matter how well the defense played because the offense never even threatened to score.
The biggest connection is obviously our head coach Bret Bielema, who coached the Badgers from 2006 until leaving for Arkansas in 2012. His Wisconsin teams were notoriously unkind to Minnesota and he kept up the tradition last year in his return to the Big Ten.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 38-44-2 against Wisconsin (0 national championships, 14 conference titles)
The Badgers seemed to take themselves out of the running early by starting 1-3 last year, including two conference losses. A former superstar recruit, quarterback Graham Mertz had an abominable start to the season and didn’t improve much as it went on. They opened up by losing to Penn State despite getting 18 more first downs than them…courtesy of three turnovers. Former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan “outdueled” Mertz as his Notre Dame Fighting Irish poured it on at the end. Mertz put the game way out of reach with two late pick-sixes to add to a 4-INT day. The Badger offense couldn’t get anything to happen against Michigan and lost big.
Then the schedule got easier.
It always has to be nice for a struggling powerhouse to see Illinois on their schedule, because after stopping in Champaign for a 24-0 win, Wisconsin won their next six games to put themselves right back in the Big Ten West race.
Then they blew it completely against blood rival Minnesota, handing the division to Iowa.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Paul Chryst returns for his eight season at the helm. He was a former offensive coordinator under Bielema before accepting the head coaching job at Pittsburgh for three seasons. Wisconsin called him home in 2015 and he’s been the offensive playcaller ever since.
Some elements are modernized, but it’s still Barry Alvarez football: quarterback under center, fullbacks, tight ends, offset I formations, very physical ground-oriented setups. Chryst will of course run playaction out of this, looking for fullbacks in the flats and tight ends on crossing routes, but generally speaking he, like his predecessors, likes to Establish The Run. Wisconsin has a history of taking unheralded local offensive line prospects and turning them into NFL guys by the time they’re redshirt seniors.
Wisconsin is the only team in the Big Ten to run a 3-4 defense, which is another thing they’ve done for ages. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the highest paid assistants in the country. His predecessor Dave Aranda just won the Big 12 as Baylor’s head coach. Wisconsin always produces very good linebacker play, but their defense requires a very specialized individual to play nose tackle. They need an enormous man capable of holding his ground against double-team blocks. Because 3-4 is a less-popular system, Wisconsin is a destination for recruits with specializations that fit well with 3-4.
Dudes To Watch
One such dude is Keeanu Benton, the senior nose tackle. He’s been an absolute rock in the middle. He may not get much love on the stat sheet, but if you watch the battle in the trenches he frees up the linebackers to make plays.
Braelon Allen is the offensive man to watch; in his freshman year, this running back got nearly 1300 yards despite not really getting much work until game 5. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry and I fully expect him to get around 300 carries this fall.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
As they do every year, Wisconsin fans expect to win the Big Ten West and lose in the conference title game. That’s kind of the default mode for them in the Big Ten West era.
They have high expectations because Wisconsin largely delivers virtually everything they want every single year. This is extremely irritating.
Like much of the Big Ten West, Wisconsin is a prime candidate to go 8-4 this year. They can’t all finish with that record though.
Illinois Game Prediction
The offensive gameplan left a lot to be desired against the Badgers last year. After getting behind early, the Illini elected to throw a bunch despite their passing game being a huge liability. The opposite approach (running the ball to wear down the opposition, run the clock and keep the game close) paid dividends at Penn State; Illinois didn’t apply it against Wisconsin.
I sure hope that’ll be different this time around. If Illinois can limit the effectiveness of the Badgers rushing game, they may just have a chance in a battle for field position. However, better teams than Illinois have tried to stop the Badgers ground game and failed. This feels like a game Wisconsin wins by a score like 20-10.
Given Bielema’s apparent issues with Barry Alvarez, I’m sure this will bother him.
Why Wisconsin Sucks
20 years ago, the University of Wisconsin’s brochure proudly featured this cover image:
Yep, that’s right, they photoshopped a black guy into that crowd!
It’s therefore unsurprising that the biggest “WISCONSIN TRADITION” (Jump Around) is to play a song by an all-white hip-hop group while the students do exactly the thing that is the name of the song.
Their marching band uses this weird jerky-looking step that has the effect of making everyone’s movement look less smooth and is quite an affront to the visual beauty of marching band. But don’t worry, they aren’t just visually offensive; they also play everything with a terrible blasting tone that also makes everything out of tune.
Illinois and Wisconsin have won the same number of Rose Bowls in the last 20 years. For a team that goes to the Rose Bowl a lot, they sure do hate winning the thing. They once lost the Rose Bowl to a Mountain West team. How do you even do that?
Barry Alvarez is a gigantic asshole who has been allowed to have way too much influence over the future of college football. Wisconsin fans never really liked Bret Bielema that much and much prefer Paul Chryst losing his only Rose Bowl appearance to Bielema losing two in a row and leading the Badgers to a third. This is despite the fact that Bielema, by all accounts, fully lived the WIsconsin lifestyle. Did you see how much weight he gained between 2006 and 2012?!
It is VERY funny that Ponzi scheme artist and Miami booster Nevin Shapiro took Alvarez for 600 grand.
I do not understand why Wisconsinites drive so slowly.
TCRBrad: Barry. Effing. Alvarez. That old bastard took a Wisconsin Football program that played in 3 bowl games across 28 years and turned it into a nationally recognized program. Yet some of the more “memorable” years of Illinois football didn’t see the Badgers as much of a threat. ‘99 never saw the Badgers, ‘01 was one of the greatest Homecoming games of all time, and ‘07’s matchup was the first win over a Top 5 team since USC in 1989 (noted Big Ten rival). A win in 2019 over 6th ranked Wisco was the start of a run to the latest bowl season for Illinois.
But let’s not forget that Wisconsin hasn’t done anything productive in the conference since 2010, haven’t won a Rose Bowl despite playing in 4 since 1999, gave Gary Andersen a Big Ten coaching job for 2 seasons, and haven’t finished the last 2 seasons as a ranked team.
They’re in the lower 3rd of scoring offenses in CFB and have a boring non-conference schedule that will inevitably have them ranked in the Top 15 ONLY to lose two of their next 4 games and fall off the planet. Yet come December, will likely be a favorite to represent the West Division in the Big Ten Championship Game (where they’ll lose 59-0 like they did in 2014).
@WhityRemarks: Remember how Illinois athletics sucked ass for the entire 2010’s? That was Wisconsin for DECADES until the late 90s.