Wisconsin and Illinois have gotten off to disappointing starts this year. Their Week 6 clash will determine whose year will continue to decline. Wisconsin's expectations were the highest of the two coming into this season, but a 10-7 loss to Oregon State in Week 2 knocked the team for a loop.
It turns out that loss wasn't as bad as it seemed. The Beavers have proven to be a solid team. They are 3-0 and have ascended to No. 14 in the nation. The Badgers also dropped their most recent game to Big Ten foe, No. 22 Nebraska.
The two biggest tests on the Badgers' schedule thus far have resulted in losses. They sit at 3-2 heading into their second conference game of the year.
The Fighting Illini have had an even rougher go this year. Most recently, they were embarrassed by Penn State on Saturday. The 35-7 drubbing came in Champaign, and that is not the type of loss first-year head coach Tim Beckman wants to endure.
The team is 2-3 on the year, and it needs to turn things around quickly. That won't be an easy task. The game takes place in Madison, Wisc., and the Badgers are always tough at home. They are undefeated there this season, and they haven't lost at Camp Randall Stadium since 2009.
Can Illinois pull off the upset? Let's take a closer look at this Big Ten Leaders division matchup.
When: Saturday, October 6, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisc.
TV: ESPN 2 and ABC
Live Stream: ESPN 3
Radio: 1310 AM WIBA in Madison and WDWS-AM 1400 in Champaign
Odds: Badgers are favorites (-11), per Oddshark.com
Injury Report: Per Oddshark.com
Illinois Fighting Illini
Henry Dickinson - LB - Out For Season (leg)
Darius Millines - WR - Questionable October 6 (ankle)
No Injuries to report.
What's at Stake?
Both teams have dropped their only other Big Ten game. Falling to 0-2 in the conference and division could all but kill their chances of playing in the Big Ten title game.
Playing at home raises the stakes for the Badgers. They have a 19-game home winning streak, and they don't want to see it broken, especially to a team like Illinois.
The Illini need to avoid a major skid. Last season, they looked like one of the nation's biggest surprises when they jumped out to a 6-0 record. They followed that up with six straight losses to close out the regular season.
They can't afford to have a streak like that this year. They have already lost two straight, and this could easily turn into a four-game skid with Michigan up next. That is a significant hole for this team to dig out of, and they will be going all out to prevent that.
What They're Saying
Wisconsin star RB Montee Ball has had a slow start this season. After being a Heisman trophy finalist last year, things have been rough for him on- and off-the-field. Earlier this year, he was attacked by five men and he suffered a concussion that forced him to miss preseason camps, per Ed Treleven of Wisconsin State Journal.
Through five games, Ball is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and has scored just six touchdowns. In 2011, Ball averaged 6.3 yards per carry with a whopping 33 touchdowns. It could be the distractions, but on the field, Ball's offensive line isn't creating the same holes.
Speaking to reporters via the Badgers official website, head coach Bret Bielema offered this explanation as to how Nebraska took away the Badgers' inside run game:
Well they got a big push, but also they were pretty heavy inside, I think they were playing a heavy technique with their defensive tackles and ends which was making it pretty congested in there. We also ran some iso plays and screens in the second half with not much reward.
That sounds like a man at his wits end. Ball's struggles are perhaps the biggest reason the Badgers have stumbled a bit out of the gates.
On the Illini's side, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hasn't given up. After their brutal loss to Penn State, Scheelhaase said this to Colleen Kane of Chicago Tribune:
There's still a lot of season left, a lot of great things that can be done. As far as I could see, after the game and (Sunday) during meetings, guys had the mindset they wanted to do whatever they could do to fix the problem.
Scheelhaase is struggling this year. He has only two touchdown passes, but he's thrown four interceptions. The problems he speaks of need to be fixed soon.
Wisconsin's Player to Watch - Montee Ball
The Badgers need their star back to perform the way he did last season. Maybe not for this game, but if they plan to make something of the rest of this season, he'll need to elevate his performance.
This is an excellent opportunity for Ball to have a breakout game. He's getting the carries, but he's had to grind out every yard. The Badgers will be looking to get him more room to operate.
This is an example of the Ball Badgers' fans would love to see.
Illinois' Player to Watch - Nathan Scheelhaase
As dynamic as Scheelhaase can be, he can be just as self-destructive. His decision-making and accuracy leave a bit to be desired at times. The Illini's record is 0-5 when Scheelhaase throws two or more interceptions.
This team needs him to drive it to victory with his legs and arm. When he's right, he is a formidable dual threat. When he's wrong, he lacks poise, accuracy and turns the ball over.
The Illini don't just need a good Nate to win this game, they need a great Nate.
Key Matchup - Wisconsin Offensive Line vs. Illinois Defensive Line
This game will be won upfront. If Illinois can hold its own at initial impact and its linebackers can fill gaps, it can keep this game close. Last week, the Illini gave up 175 yards on the ground to Penn State.
Wisconsin's running game is better than the Nittany Lions. The Illini defense must raise its game, or it will be blown away. If Ball has room to run and he breaks loose early, it will be another long and painful Saturday for the Illini.
The Badgers will win this game at home. Barring a complete collapse, the Illini defense won't be able to contain the Badgers' running game.
Wisconsin will win 34-14.
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