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Illinois vs. Wisconsin Prediction: Fighting Illini, Badgers Meet in Madison for Key Big Ten West Matchup

Wisconsin looks to rebound from last week's loss by continuing its run of success against Illinois.

The month of October begins a game that will help set the tone in the Big Ten's West Division. When the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) travel north to take on the Wisconsin Badgers (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday, it will help sort out the current logjam in the standings. Illinois comes to Madison off of a shutout of FCS Chattanooga, while Wisconsin opened conference play last Saturday night with a lopsided loss (52-21) on the road against Ohio State.

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The loser of this game drops to 0-2 in conference play, something both teams need to avoid with Minnesota, Iowa, and Northwestern already a game up in the win column. Wisconsin has dominated the head-to-head series with Illinois recently, winning nine of the past 10 matchups. The Badgers also have beaten the Illini eight straight times in Madison, with their last loss coming in 2002.

Illinois at Wisconsin

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Wisconsin -7.5
Tickets: As low as $57 on SITickets.com

When Illinois Has the Ball

The engine that makes this Fighting Illini offense go is running back Chase Brown. The nation's leading rusher with 604 yards, Brown has been a workhorse for his team (95 carries, second in FBS). During last week's win over Chattanooga, he passed the legendary Red Grange for 16th on the school's all-time list with 2,159 career rushing yards. Brown is averaging 6.4 yards per carry as defenses have had trouble limiting the damage he's done on the ground.

But Illinois' offense is far from being a one-man show. Quarterback Tommy DeVito has done a good job providing balance to the attack. The Syracuse transfer has made a seamless transition, currently ranking second in the Big Ten in touchdown passes (9) and seventh in passing yards (954). His accuracy (69 percent completion rate, fifth) and decision-making (2 INTs) have been huge for a team that struggled to get consistent play out of the position the last two seasons. DeVito's top targets thus far have been wide receivers Pat Bryant (14 rec., 262 yds., 2 TDs), Isaiah Williams (28, 260, 2), and Brian Hightower (12, 120, 1). 

If there's one area where Illinois could improve, it's in pass protection. The group has yielded nine sacks through four games, the second-most takedowns allowed in the conference. That's something to keep an eye on against a Wisconsin defense that had registered seven sacks in the first three games before getting shut out in that category in last Saturday's 52-21 beatdown courtesy of Ohio State.

That one game (539 total yards, 7.7 per play allowed) was enough to push the Badgers down the Big Ten's defensive leaderboard, but that doesn't mean coordinator Jim Leonhard's unit can't rebound either. Prior to the Ohio State contest, Wisconsin had given up an average of 246 yards per game and a total of 24 points. Granted, Illinois State, Washington State, and New Mexico State aren't exactly a murderer's row, but it's also safe to say that the Illini's offense won't pose the same threat as the Buckeyes. So it will be interesting to see how the Badgers rebound on that side of the ball.

When Wisconsin Has the Ball

As it has been for years, the Badgers' offense is built around the running game and the program has a long line of productive backs to show for it. The latest in the pipeline is Braelon Allen. A 1,200-yard rusher as a true freshman, Allen is third in the Big Ten (behind Brown and Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim) with 497 yards this season. He's averaging nearly seven yards per carry (6.8) and has scored six times on the ground. Wisconsin has 11 total rushing touchdowns, tying them for 16th nationally.

Graham Mertz is in his third season as the starting quarterback, and while it's early, he's off to a solid start. He's completing 67.1 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The Badgers aren't built for beating teams through the air, but Mertz has done his part to try and keep defenses honest. 

Wide receiver Skyler Bell leads the team with 12 catches for 201 yards while adding two touchdown receptions, and Chimere Dike is averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Tight end Clay Cundiff also has two TDs and 142 yards, but he's out indefinitely after suffering a leg injury in last week's game. No other player on the roster has more than four catches, so someone else will need to step up to give Mertz another reliable target.

Illinois' defense has been very stingy in the early going, giving up just eight points per game. The Illini have yielded just one rushing touchdown and less than three yards per carry, but Allen and Wisconsin's running game will certainly test them. Defensive linemen Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer'Zhan Newton have combined for 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. The Illini's 11 total sacks (Newton and Gabe Jacas have three each) are tied for third in the Big Ten and could be a key factor in this game. Even though the Badgers don't throw the ball a lot, they have already given up seven sacks through four games. Mertz also will need to make the right decisions when he does throw the ball, as Illinois has six interceptions and is credited with 25 pass breakups, ranking second in the conference in both categories.

Final Analysis

Illinois has a better record and looks better on paper entering this game. But Wisconsin has had the Illini's number and then some for a while now, especially in Madison. The Badgers are eager to put last week's horrendous showing against Ohio State behind them, and in many ways, that game should be treated as an outlier. Along those same lines, even with wins over Virginia and Wyoming and a close loss to Indiana, this will be Illinois' first true test of the season. Both teams rely on their running games, and that will likely determine the outcome of this one. Although the Illini are continuing to show improvement under former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers know who they are and pretty much have their style of play down to a science. It will be close, but Wisconsin posts yet another win over Illinois in Camp Randall Stadium.

Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Illinois 24

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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.

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