Wisconsin/Illini Preview: Illinois To Continue Free Fallin'

Jeff RobbinsContributor INovember 18, 2011

I’m begrudgingly accepting that, even though the calendar says we’re still a week away from Thanksgiving, the holiday season is indeed here.

And yes, I realize that in coming to this conclusion that I’ve basically been brainwashed by the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Sirius/XM (for already programming several channels of holiday music), Amazon.com (for getting a head start on their “Black Friday” deals), Punky Brewster, who is for whatever reason Target’s “Mommy Ambassador,” and even myself.

You see, when you start telling your children in August that you can’t buy them something because “Christmas is coming soon and you might get that from Santa,” by mid-November it does start to seem that the holidays are long overdue.

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the Wisconsin football Badgers should be in a festive holiday mood. After the heart-breaking losses in October to the Spartans and Buckeyes, the Badgers are now in control of the Big Ten’s “Leaders” division, thanks to back-to-back blowout wins over Purdue and Minnesota, Ohio State’s OT loss last week, and of course, the sad events at Penn State that have made any short-term on-field success with their football program, in light of everything that has happened, seem both highly unimportant and highly unlikely.

But before Wisconsin can travel to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship (where it looks like they will have a chance to exact revenge on Michigan State), they’ve got two more games, starting with Saturday’s date in Champaign, where they will take on a reeling Illinois team that has lost four games in a row following a 6-0 start that had landed them in the Top 25.

Things keep getting worse for the Illini: Head coach Ron Zook made headlines this week for walking out of a press conference after a reporter asked Zook about rumors that he was about to be fired, one of their starting linebackers was shot in the hand at a campus party, and now the team has to face the Badgers, who won’t be too interested in helping Illinois feel better about themselves.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines for the game:

1. Will Illinois score? Against weaker opponents, Illinois looked like one of the better offenses in the Big Ten, scoring nearly 35 points a game in their opening six-game win streak. Since then, their offense has been about as intimidating as Duffy the Disney Bear, scoring a total of 42 points over the last four games and being shut out entirely in the first half for four weeks straight. The problems for Illinois during the losing streak seem to be all over the board (11 turnovers, an inconsistent rushing attack), but their main setback seems to be that teams have figured out how to contain wideout A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins, still the leading receiver in the Big Ten, has been held to no touchdowns and 80 yards per game over the last four weeks, well shy of his 113 yards-per-game average. It will be tough for Jenkins to get right against Wisconsin’s conference-leading pass defense.

2. Injury update. Quite a few of the Badgers starters are, as they say in sports, nicked up. If Wisconsin puts Illinois in a hole they can’t climb out of – which for the Illini could be as little as a 14-point deficit – look for head coach Bret Bielema to call for some subs. After suffering a shoulder injury against the Gophers, receiver Jared Abbrederis’s official status is questionable, but Bielema was a little more optimistic in his Thursday press conference. “I think he’ll be back there on punt return and offense. I don’t know if we’ll use him as a kick returner,” Bielema said. Other starters likely to play through injury include linebacker Mike Taylor, receiver Nick Toon, and safety Aaron Henry. Of course the biggest injury concern is with center Peter Konz, who is out for at least the next two games with a left ankle injury. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Groy will start in place of Konz. The Badgers hope to have Konz back by the Big Ten Championship game on December 3, if, of course, the Badgers qualify for that inaugural game.

3. Heisman watch back on? After Stanford’s loss last week in which presumed Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, could Badgers QB Russell Wilson be back in the Heisman conversation? Wilson’s pass efficiency rating leads the country (a sick 201.6), he’s also second to none in yards per completion, and fifth in the nation in completion percentage. A big game against a pretty-good Illinois pass defense that’s allowing just 173 yards per game through the air wouldn’t hurt his chances.

Final Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 10.