The Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini will play under the lights in Champaign, Ill., in a battle between two Leaders Division teams.
Last season at Camp Randall Stadium, the Fighting Illini (3-2, 0-1) kept up with the Badgers (4-2, 2-1) in the first half, but Wisconsin pulled away and secured a 31-14 victory. Illinois' last victory over the Badgers came at home back in 2007, but it has lost the last three meetings.
The Badgers are flying high after taking care of business and then some against No. 19 Northwestern, helping them jump back into the AP Top 25 poll. Just as Wisconsin had an extra week to prepare for the Wildcats, Illinois is fresh off a bye week and will look to use that to its advantage. However, the Fighting Illini lost by three scores in their Big Ten opener at Nebraska on Oct. 5.
This game may appear to have blowout written all over it, but the Illini played Wisconsin tough last season and have tested themselves early in 2013. The night game atmosphere at Memorial Stadium could also prove to even the playing field.
Wisconsin should be fully aware that this has trap game written all over it. Let's find out how it can avoid that trap as we run down the keys to the game and players to watch for both teams in the complete game preview.
Day, Time: Saturday at 7:00 p.m. CT
Place: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: -12.5 (via OddsShark.com)
Just pound the rock
If the Badgers can't run the ball, which is a rare instance, then they are going to have have trouble pulling out a victory. Running the football shouldn't be an issue against Illinois, a team that allows nearly 200 yards on the ground each game, the second-worst mark in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has one of the best backfields in the country. It has all the makings of a field day for tailbacks Melvin Gordon and James White, especially in the second half once Illinois' front seven begins to wear down. The Fighting Illini are allowing 6.30 yards per carry in the final 30 minutes (via Dave Heller of FOX Sports Wisconsin).
Might as well throw it, too
Not only has Illinois had difficulty slowing down the run, but it doesn't exactly have success defending the pass, either. It ranks No. 10 in the B1G against the pass, allowing 254.4 passing yards per contest.
Joel Stave was able to have success in the passing game against Northwestern, another team with a porous secondary, but with Illinois also having its struggles against the run, that should aid Stave even more. When one aspect of the offense isn't working, the Badgers can turn to the other.
Account for Josh Ferguson at all times
The leading rusher and receiver for the Fighting Illini, Josh Ferguson is a huge threat out of the backfield. The Badgers will need to be on high alert, especially at linebacker when Ferguson is swung out wide to receive a pass.
The sophomore tailback is averaging 6.3 yards per rush and 17.2 yards per pass, accounting for four touchdowns in all. Just like the Badgers' Melvin Gordon, Ferguson is a threat to break a big play every time he touches the football.
Get the ball to your playmakers
We already touched on Ferguson, who is averaging just under 14 touches per game. That seems low considering Ferguson's staggering numbers through five games, so look for Illinois to increase his workload this week against Wisconsin.
Wide receiver Ryan Lankford is also a big-play threat—he has caught 11 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. And of course, the man who will be touching the ball on every snap, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He's not afraid to take off running, and Scheelhaase has thrown for 12 touchdowns in 2013.
Stack the box
The Fighting Illini certainly have their issues in the secondary, but with Wisconsin's No. 1 receiver Jared Abbrederis coming off a concussion, the Badgers may be tentative to turn his way as often as usual. The first priority for any Wisconsin opponent is to stop the run, and it should be no different for Illiniois.
Get home crowd into it
To build off of the last key, playing on the road at night is much different than playing at home. Putting Joel Stave in sure passing situations is when the Badgers tend to struggle moving the ball through the air, and crowd noise won't make that task any easier.
Wisconsin has yet to win a road game this season, and Illinois' only loss at Memorial Stadium was against No. 19 Washington by 10 points. The only issue for the Fighting Illini is that Wisconsin's fanbase travels well, but even so, it will be a pro-Illinois crowd. Combine that with the night atmosphere, and that could make life difficult for the Badgers.
All indications are that wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will be active against Illinois, but nothing is set in stone. Abbrederis exited Wisconsin's game against Northwestern with a head injury and will likely need to show no signs of concussion-like symptoms to suit up.
In Abbrederis' absence, tight end Jacob Pedersen stepped into the proverbial No. 1 receiving role, catching four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown. As a tight end, Pedersen isn't going to be a down-field threat like Abbrederis, but he's someone the Badgers have been waiting to step up in the passing game. It appears Stave and Pedersen are growing more comfortable with one another.
Early on this season, we've seen the growing pains for Brendan Kelly in his transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. At times, opponents have taken advantage of Kelly when he drops back into coverage, which is not his strong suit.
Kelly is used primarily as a pass rusher, and the Badgers are trying to protect him by using him in blitzing situations while using other linebackers in coverage. With tailback Josh Ferguson receiving passes out of the backfield, that could put Kelly in a vulnerable position, especially if Illinois looks to exploit him with the wheel route, the arch-nemesis of the Wisconsin defense.
It sure didn't take long for Tanner McEvoy to embrace the safety position. Not only has he embraced it, but he's launched himself into a starting role and has helped to solidify the Wisconsin secondary.
At 6'6", McEvoy is an intimidating presence in the defensive backfield, and he has also proved to be a sure-tackler. He's a great athlete and isn't afraid to be physical, two extremely important attributes to have as a safety. Keep an eye on how he is able to handle Illinois this Saturday, a team with the No. 3 passing offense in the Big Ten.
He's Illinois' most explosive and versatile player, leading the team in both rushing yards and receiving yards. Ferguson is No. 5 in the B1G in all-purpose yards, but splits time in the backfield with Donovann Young.
Look for Ferguson to be used out wide with Young in the game, as he is just too valuable for Illinois to have standing on the sidelines for extended periods of time, especially against Wisconsin.
A lot of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's success will be predicated on whether or not Illinois is able to jump out to a lead in the early going. According to Dave Heller, the senior is completing 76.9 percent of his passes when the Fighting Illini are leading by at least eight points, but only 45.9 percent when Illinois is trailing by eight or more.
Overall, Scheelhaase has very respectable numbers (64.2 completion percentage, 12 TDs, 4 INTs) after having a rough go of it during his junior year. He faltered in Illinois' B1G opener at Nebraska, but returning home to face an unproven secondary could help Scheelhaase have a bounce-back performance.
Just as Chris Borland is the unquestioned leader of the Wisconsin defense, outside linebacker Jonathan Brown is the heart and soul of this Illinois defense. He leads the team in tackles with 60 and also has a team-best 1.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
He'll face a challenge going up against a stout offensive line and top-5 rushing attack, but if Brown is able to get going, that could free up other defenders and make life difficult for the Wisconsin offense.
Wisconsin's wide receiver coach Chris Beatty, who happened to be the quarterbacks coach at Illinois last season, on why Jared Abbrederis didn't return after suffering a head injury in the first half against Northwestern (via Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
"We all thought he could have come back in. It was more of a precaution. We didn’t feel like the game was in hand but we thought let’s err on the side of being cautious."
Andersen estimates 5-7 personnel groups from Illinois, saying the Illini can create match-up problems with varying looks.— Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q) October 14, 2013
An interesting tidbit from the official Twitter feed of Illinois football.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman on his team's best plan of attack against Wisconsin's offense (via @MTBadgers):
Beckman says Badgers offense has lots of similarities in last 2 years, need to create pressure on run game as pass is set up through run.
Having an extra week to prepare for Wisconsin could make a world of difference for the Fighting Illini, a team hungry for a conference victory after getting embarrassed at Nebraska back on Oct. 5.
If this one comes down to the wire, special teams might be the difference, as the Badgers are still uncertain of who will kick this Saturday. However, Illinois has also had its woes in the kicking game, as Taylor Zalewski is 5-for-8 on field goals this season, just like the now-benched Kyle French.
But this game isn't going to come down to the wire.
Wisconsin may still be winless away from Camp Randall Stadium, but its two road opponents thus far were no pushover. The Badgers are already battle-tested and appear to be clicking on all cylinders after a 35-6 thrashing of Northwestern.
Illinois may know exactly how to game-plan for Wisconsin, but it won't make a difference. The Fighting Illini can't stop the run, struggle against the pass and are going up against a Badger defense that is successful at defending both.
The home crowd may have its impact early, but it will be silenced by the third quarter, as Wisconsin is simply to overpowering. The Badgers either lose close or win big—this one will be the latter.
Prediction: Wisconsin 38, Illinois 14