As Illini fans, we’re unfortunately quite accustomed to negativity around our football program.
The entire Wisconsin program, on the other hand, is still reeling from the pounding that they received at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus last week. The Buckeyes may be on another level entirely compared to the rest of the Big Ten, but the Badgers simply aren’t used to looking that uncompetitive against anyone. Questions are even starting to swirl about Paul Chryst’s job security.
Meanwhile, the Illini are fresh and mostly healthy coming off a bye week and a Thursday night game against an FCS opponent. They come to Madison with the nation’s leading rusher and a great defense ready to make a name for itself.
It’s been so very long since the Illini could feel even reasonably confident about playing a competitive game at Camp Randall, but Illinois finally has the opportunity to flip the script on Saturday.
That said, Wisconsin still matches or exceeds Illinois’ talent level and depth at almost every position. Combining that with the typically raucous atmosphere at Camp Randall, Bret Bielema and Co. are going to need to get creative to pull out a win. One way they could do that is if they...
Run to Set Up the Pass
Wisconsin is accustomed to having at least one elite wide receiver around on the off-chance that their run game isn’t working.
Players like Jared Abbrederis, Kendric Pryor, and Quintez Cephus are some of the first names that come to mind. But unlike previous years, the Badgers simply don’t have a game-changing pass catcher this season. Worse yet, Graham Mertz is a liability passing the ball.
It’s not at all a stretch to say that Isaiah Williams and Pat Bryant are going to be the two best receivers on the field Saturday. Barry Lunney absolutely must leverage that advantage against a beat-up Badgers defense. I’m not asking Lunney to suddenly go with an air-raid offense, but to rather use Chase Brown and the offensive line to get Tommy Devito into favorable passing situations.
An ideal drive would start with Chase Brown or Reggie Love rushing for 6-7 yards (or more) on first down. Second and short would be an ideal time for Devito to target either of his main receiver targets on a deep or isolation route. Because when you get Williams and Bryant in space, some pretty incredible things can happen.
Even if the passes don’t connect, third and short is almost always manageable with a back like Chase Brown.
Illinois’ run game alone may be able to simply out-rush the Badgers. But the Illini very likely will have the edge when it comes to wide receivers, and the offense could start generating points quickly if they can capitalize on that advantage. Scoring even 21 against this Badgers offense would start to look insurmountable.
I truly believe that it’ll take more than just a dominant performance from Chase Brown to put this game away, since the Badgers have a very similar back in Braelon Allen and will be trying to do the exact same thing. This is especially true given Mertz’ limitations in the passing game. Speaking of whom...
Force Graham Mertz to Throw
The Mertz-led aerial assault against the Illini in 2020 seems like ages ago at this point.
Not only does Mertz lack elite targets this season, he’s also been fairly inaccurate himself. Mertz was only 18-of-31 (58.1%) passing with an interception and two touchdowns at home against the Washington State Cougars earlier this season. He only threw 16 and 15 times against Illinois State and New Mexico State respectively, the only two wins that Wisconsin had this year.
Clearly, the Badgers aren’t looking to win this game behind Mertz’s arm. But if they get down early and are forced into passing situations, then the stage is set for Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin, and Sydney Brown to have a very big day.
With Wisconsin trying to win the game behind Braelon Allen, shutting him down will be paramount. The Illini have the talent to do that behind Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Calvin Avery, and Seth Coleman.
And Paul Chryst is still tinkering with his offensive line, which will likely lead to miscommunication and open gaps. That’s something that Ryan Walters would absolutely take advantage of.
As usual, the Illini will need to play largely mistake-free and disciplined football to win. Wisconsin is not known to lose the turnover battle very often, so capitalizing on each opportunity will be vital. We’ll also need Hugh Robertson to punt his best, since field position will be of utmost importance in what is likely to be a slugfest.
But if the Illini can execute in all facets of the game, then an upset is possible.