While neither Illinois nor Wisconsin have gotten off to the starts that they wanted to for the 2012 football season, all is not lost yet. The Fighting Illini come into the game with a 2-3 record, while the Badgers stand 3-2. Both teams did lose their opening Big Ten contests as well.
Illinois comes to Camp Randall for the first time since 2008, which turned out to be a Badger victory. Illinois hopes to change that in 2012, in what could be a pivotal game in the Big Ten Leaders Division. With Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible to participate in the Big Ten Championship, only Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana can take home the division crown.
Indiana has done nothing to warrant talk of them winning the division, although Purdue shouldn't be counted out. As stated before, Illinois and Wisconsin have been big time disappointments so far this year, but I predict the Fighting Illini to get back on track Saturday and here's why.
Through five games, Illinois has the nation's 78th best scoring defense at 27.8 points per game. In 2011, that figure was only 23.6 points against and only because of a late season collapse and six game losing streak.
Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Terry Hawthorne return from last year's defense among others, but need to make adjustments and quickly if Illinois has any postseason aspirations. In Illinois's three losses, they have given up 44 points per game, as opposed to 3.5 points against in the two wins.
Wisconsin has struggled on offense this season. First their offensive line has allowed way too many sacks to Danny O'Brien, who has now been replaced by Joel Stave at quarterback. Montee Ball has also had trouble getting going and could continue to be stopped at the line of scrimmage as Illinois appears to have the advantage in the trenches.
The last time that Illinois beat Wisconsin was five years ago in 2007, the same year that Illinois made the Rose Bowl. That loss ended a 14-game winning streak for the Badgers. While neither Illinois nor Wisconsin look even close to Rose Bowl teams, let alone Kraft Fight Hunger teams, this game really could help determine the Leaders Division champion (as sad as that may sound at this point).
Illinois lost in Madison in 2008, but did not battle the Badgers on the gridiron in 2009 or 2010. Last season, Wisconsin came into Champaign and won 28-17 after trailing 17-7 at halftime. Illinois won't quit this year though, unlike last season under Ron Zook.
This will also be Tim Beckman's first look at the Badgers, whom Illinois will play every year from now on. While Beckman has been criticized for some coaching decisions thus far, he will give Brett Bielema a different look than Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino did a year ago.
Danny O'Brien hasn't turned out like Russell Wilson did a year ago, as both players transferred to Wisconsin and were able to play quarterback without sitting a season. With O'Brien struggling, Bielema has now gone with freshman Joel Stave under center.
Despite some switching at quarterback due to injuries, Nathan Scheelhaase should see a majority of the snaps this Saturday, although don't be surprised to see Reilly O'Toole take the field. Scheelhaase is a dual-threat QB, while O'Toole is a more standard pocket passer.
O'Brien, who previously played at Maryland, has not gone up against Big Ten defenses before and last Saturday against Nebraska was Stave's first experience. While Scheelhaase has his flaws, he has led Illinois to consecutive bowl victories the past two seasons, which no other B1G team has done.
Illinois was blown out to Penn State at home last week, while Wisconsin blew a huge lead at Nebraska. Neither team's confidence is high right now and despite a 14.5 point spread in favor of the home Badgers, I see the Fighting Illini squeaking out a low-scoring game late in the fourth quarter on the road.