I’ve been writing about Illinois football since graduating in 2016. Every year it's the same storyline when the Illini face the Badgers.
Illinois needs a perfect game to be within a touchdown. The defense needs to be on point. The offense needs to be rhythmic. Special teams need to be, well, special. It’s happened once since I set foot down in Champaign.
The rest hasn’t been pretty.
This one is also a bit personal for me: I date and live with a Wisconsin alum. Her entire family and all her Badger friends wait for this game every year so they can gloat about how great Wisconsin is and how much Illinois sucks at football.
Usually, they’re right. Even in 2019 — when Illinois beat Wisconsin on Homecoming — I thought I was going to watch the Illini get trampled. I had no faith in the Illini winning that day and even after a few Blue Guys and cups-of-shots at Joe’s I had no sense of false hope.
But this year is different. With the Badgers having some glaring holes in their otherwise well-kept ship, Illinois has a fighting chance.
Even the sportsbooks are intrigued by this game. The line opened on Sunday favoring Wisconsin by 9 points, but the money is falling on Illinois, dropping the line to 7 by Monday night.
There’s just something about this team that doesn't seem to quit. And I won’t be surprised if the Illini emerge victorious.
With that said, here are my three most intriguing matchups for Saturday.
Illinois Passing Game vs. Wisconsin Secondary
The Wisconsin secondary got exposed by Ohio State. Now I’m not saying that Illinois can do what Ohio State did to spread out the field, but there's game tape of the blueprint now The holes exist.
If Illinois can do even half of what Ohio State did on offense, the Illini win the game.
I really don’t think that it’s out of the realm of possibility that Illinois passing game works on Saturday. Here’s why:
- Chase Brown will need to be respected.
- Tommy Devito, Isaiah Williams, and Pat Bryant are riding highs after torching the Mocs last Thursday. I think that carries.
- Michael Marchese, Luke Ford, and Tip Reiman still beg to be respected. We saw how Ohio State used its tight ends to surprise the Badgers. Marchese has two wheel-route touchdowns, coming unexpectedly out of the backfield.
I wholly expect Lunney to use TEs as decoys, to open the passing game up for Williams and Bryant. This year’s team has a dimension on offense we haven’t seen over most of the last decade. It couldn’t have come up at a more needed time.
Graham Mertz vs. Illinois Pass-Rush
Illinois’ defense is suffocating. The law firm of Newton and Randolph, Avery, Coleman, and the emerging Jacas are getting to the quarterback. They are getting better and better each game.
Wisconsin’s massive offensive line will be a jump up in difficulty, but the pieces on Illinois' defense are there. Graham Mertz won’t be relaxed in the pocket. He’ll have two, maybe three seconds to find his target.
Wisconsin doesn’t have the same quality of receivers as they’ve had in the past. With TE Clay Cundiff out for the season, Wisconsin only has two receivers with over 100 yards receiving and more than 5 receptions on the season.
To put that into perspective—two Illinois receivers had that on Thursday.
Bielema vs. The Crowd vs. The Clock
This is the most interesting one, and probably why Bielema has refused to speak to the press about his return to Wisconsin, instead making this game more about the University of Illinois against the University of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin and Bielema have a long history, and while he was successful in the Big Ten, his time management skills, the three Rose Bowl losses, and his departure to Arkansas have left a sour taste in Madison.
The crowd will be raucous and loud. Even if the current student body may not remember the Bielema days, they sure remember their dad, uncle, and older brother taking Bert’s name in vain. The alumni and older Badger fans will be out, hoping he screws up the clock like it’s the 2012 Rose Bowl.
Bielema will do everything to avoid utter embarrassment in Madison. He will be sure to get the team ready to battle at Camp Randall and come out on the other side victorious. With all the talk about rematches, this is one that we all know Bielema had on his calender in January.
Eight years ago today, Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas, partly due to thinking he had taken the #Badgers as far as he could. Since then, UW is 74-24 (.755), 5-2 in bowl games and signed 3 straight top-30 recruiting classes. Goes to show that programs can survive coaches.— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) December 4, 2020
This is one of three games in October that are barometer games.
Keep this game interesting and loose, and no harm will be done to the current Illinois brand of football. We know we aren’t 63-0 bad.
Win this one, and Iowa next week will be must-watch TV.
I think Illinois is better. Let’s hope they can prove it on Saturday.