GAME NOTES: After making their return to the Top-25, No. 25 Wisconsin will face a tough Big Ten Conference road test at Illinois on Saturday night.
Wisconsin began the season ranked in the preseason poll and were able to climb to No. 20 following a fast 2-0 start, but with a couple of difficult road losses to Arizona (32-30) and Ohio State (31-24), it promptly fell from the ranks. The Badgers bounced back in a big way last weekend in their homecoming game by downing Northwestern, 35-6, to move to 2-1 in the Big Ten.
"These kids prepared," Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson said. "It obviously means a lot to them every single week, but the ability to get in this position and win at home against really good football team, and we all know that Northwestern is a very, very good football team...I'm proud of this team."
Illinois has been one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises during the first half of the season, and at 3-2, it has already surpassed its win total from the disastrous 2012 season (2-10). The Illini entered league play in their latest contest on Oct. 5 at Nebraska and were handed a 39-19 defeat. They have now dropped 15 consecutive Big Ten matchups dating back to the 2011 season.
This marks the 80th meeting between these two programs, with the series knotted up at 36-36-7. The Badgers have had the upper hand of late, beating the Illini in seven of the last eight matchups.
Wisconsin's offense has been outstanding this season, scoring 37.2 ppg, but in a Big Ten filled with high-scoring teams that number is good for just fifth in the league. It is the conference's top offense in terms of yardage (519.5 ypg), however.
Joel Stave runs the offense and has been impressive with 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns on 61.8 percent completions, but he's been plagued by six interceptions, and as good as the offense has performed, he knows that it is capable of even more.
"There's things to tighten up (with the offense)," Stave said. "There's room for improvement, as there always is. It's never going to be perfect, but that's the goal. We're going to watch (the tape), learn from it and make sure we're continuing to strive for perfection."
Unfortunately for Stave and the Badgers, it appears as though they might be without one of the nation's best receivers in this matchup, as Jared Abbrederis is doubtful after suffering a concussion last week. He has racked up 35 receptions, 646 yards and five touchdowns, and in his absence James White (18 receptions, 160 yards) will likely serve as the top target.
Luckily, Wisconsin has the nation's fifth-ranked rushing attack to lean on, as the squad puts up 298.2 yards per game on the ground. Melvin Gordon is in the midst of a breakout campaign during his sophomore season with 870 yards (third in FBS) and eight touchdowns. White also gets involved with 574 yards and five scores, and Corey Clement makes the most of his limited touches with 353 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, few teams in the FBS can compete with the Badgers. They yield just 267.3 ypg, and their scoring defense (13.2 ppg) ranks first in the conference and fifth in the nation.
Chris Borland is the defensive catalyst. His 56 tackles are more than twice as many as any of his teammates, and he has also racked up 3.0 TFL and 2.0 sacks. Sojour Shelton has picked off three passes, while Warren Herring (4.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Vince Biegel (2.0 sacks) help create a pass-rush.
The Illinois offense has nearly been as impressive as Wisconsin's, as it ranks in the upper half of the Big Ten in both scoring (36.0 ppg) and yardage (457.2 ypg), while also converting third downs at a 48 percent clip.
Nathan Scheelhaase has been one of the league's most impressive signal callers, ranking third in both yards (1,297) and touchdowns (12), and his completion percentage (.642) is the best among Big Ten quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He has also protected the football for the most part with just four interceptions.
Josh Ferguson is one of the most versatile tailbacks in the nation. Not only does he lead the team in rushing with 310 yards and a touchdown on 49 attempts, but he is Scheelhaase's favorite target in the passing game as well, reeling in 20 balls for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Donovonn Young is also heavily utilized with 269 yards and three scores.
Ryan Lankford acts as a viable deep threat, tallying 236 yards and a touchdown on just 11 receptions.
The Illini have had some issues on the defensive side of the ball, allowing opposing teams to score 27.6 ppg on 449.8 ypg.
Jonathan Brown is one of the Big Ten's top tacklers with 60 stops and 6.5 TFL. The unit has created only five turnovers through five games, with Taylor Barton recording the only interception.
Illinois has defended its home field admirably this season, winning all three of its contests in Champaign, although it has yet to face an opponent as formidable as Wisconsin. The Illini are a much-improved team this season and will make a game of it, but the Badgers are one of the nation's most well- balanced squads, and even if Abbrederis is unable to suit up, they still have enough firepower to capture a tough road victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Wisconsin 30, Illinois 21