So, this is what a big game feels like?
There hasn’t been one of those for Illini football since that fateful day in the Bay when the Cal Bears (!) put a beating on a Brandon Peters-led Illini squad.
Games like this are why you hire Bret Bielema over the “hot assistant” or the Group of Five coach with the obscure philosophy du jour.
Games like this are why you build your roster in the trenches.
Games like this are why you hire Barry Lunney Jr. to orchestrate the offense and don’t just sit back and let Tony Petersen do…whatever he was trying to accomplish.
Games like this are why you build a location-agnostic scheme set built on power running and a high-end secondary.
But most importantly, games like this are the ones that programs on the upswing win.
Where is Illinois in its rebuilding process?
Saturday at Camp Randall will tell a lot.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room early. Yes, this is Bret Bielema’s first visit to Madison as a head coach since he spurned Wisconsin for SEC money in Fayetteville following the 2012 season. Bielema’s connection to Wisconsin—and its football godfather Barry Alvarez— was the saltiest salt in the wound of his departure.
But the program has kept on rolling, kept on winning, and kept on beating the Illini. The system hasn’t changed. It works. Bielema hopes he can replicate that system in his home state. But can he engineer a huge win this Saturday?
In the cult classic film Boiler Room, Ben Affleck (yes, that Ben Affleck) steals the movie in only a few scenes. In one of the great underrated monologues in modern cinema history, In an address to a bunch of underperforming young stockbrokers, he says the following:
And there is no such thing as a no sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can’t. Either way a sale is made, the only question is who is gonna close? You or him? Now be relentless…
This game is a statement game. But who will make the statement, Illinois or Wisconsin?
Either Illinois will walk into enemy grounds and tell a beleaguered Badgers squad that the free ride is over, or Wisconsin will punish Illinois for punching out of its depth.
Will Illinois mark its arrival at the big boy table or will Wisconsin flip the table over onto the Illini’s heads?
Which defensive coordinator will be carried off the field in victory? Jim Leonhard or Ryan Walters?
Jim Leonhard is no joke. He’s good enough to turn down NFL jobs. He is widely considered one of the top five defensive coordinators in the country. His defenses regularly send dudes to the NFL…and they regularly drink the Illini’s milkshake.
Last week, the prideful Badgers defense got 52 hung around their necks by Ohio State.
This begs the question: will Wisconsin be demoralized or ravenous?
From a talent perspective, Wisconsin’s defense has one of the best units in the nation. DT Keanu Benton returned to school despite high NFL potential. Preseason All-American pass rusher Nick Herbig is a disruptive force that Barry Lunney and Bart Miller have to game plan for.
Wisconsin’s secondary, however, has undersized corners. This gives Tommy DeVito the chance to go into a hostile environment and find Casey Washington, Brian Hightower, Pat Bryant, and the Illini tight ends with red-zone mismatches.
Exploiting matchups is something Illinois doesn’t traditionally do against Wisconsin.
On offense, WIsconsin returns Graham Mertz. Despite his debut game against the Illini in 2020, I can confirm that Mertz is not the pod-created genetic offspring of Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Jonathan Moxon, collegiate Tim Tebow, and a JUGS machine.
He is, in fact, a statistically pedestrian B1G quarterback. His season high thus far is 18 completions against Washington State. How did that game turn out? Despite the horrific flashbacks to Mertz’s October 23, 2020 game against the Illini, the best gameplan may be to keep the ball in Mertz’s hands instead of taking him out of the game.
Braelon Allen, on the other hand, is not statistically pedestrian. He is frankly one of the most devastating backs in the nation. He’s averaging almost 7 yards per carry this season. The “matchup” between him and Chase Brown could decide this game.
Ryan Walters has been amazing this year. Illini opponents have scored (getting my calculator) 3 points in the past two games. This includes pitching a shutout with a true freshman starting at a key position. But Gabe Jacas is no ordinary freshman, and he brings a dimension to the Illini defense not seen since Oluwole Betiku showed up from USC.
The Illini secondary seem to have a plus matchup against the Wisconsin passing attack. When Sydney Brown is the starting defensive back getting the lowest PFF grade, your secondary is having a hell of a season. The Illini have cleaned up some of the chunk play issues that plagued them late against Indiana. That’s a start.
Quan Martin has continued his Kerby Joseph-like trajectory and Devon Witherspoon is looking more and more like a surefire NFL corner. All of this progress has to continue. By ostensibly eliminating Wisconsin’s passing game and controlling the clock with a steady dose of Chase Brown and Tommy DeVito, Illinois can scheme and plod their way to an upset.
The Illini have not won a game in Madison since 2002. Bret Bielema was still an assistant coach at Kansas State at that time. The Badgers beat the Illini up on the field. On the recruiting trail, the University of Wisconsin coaches storm into the Illini’s backyard and eat their lunches. That’s part of why kids who grow up in Illinois don’t dream of being Illini: they don’t want to be the losers who get whooped and embarrassed every year.
Bret Bielema took 4 out of 5 games against the Illini as Badgers head man. As an Illinois native, he understands as well as anyone that this week isn’t just about him. It’s about the program he is building, looking into the future and seeing the program it wants to become.
The oddsmakers don’t see a 2022 reversal of fortune as likely for the Illini. But if Bielema’s Illini are truly different, the oddsmakers should be eating crow by 3:00 CST on Saturday.