At 2-4, the Illinois Fighting Illini are looking for some positives during this 2019 season, as they prepare for Saturday's home date with the Wisconsin Badgers. At first glance, the Fighting Illini suffered through their fourth straight loss and its third within Big Ten play last week against Michigan.
On the other hand, Illinois rallied impressively before coming up short at home vs. the Wolverines, losing 42-25. Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Robinson completed 16 of 25 passes for 192 yards and one touchdown while also adding another touchdown on the ground. At one point, Michigan led 28-0 before the Fighting Illini rattled off 25 points to make it a close game. Unfortunately, they could not close the deal, turning the ball over and giving way to two more Wolverine touchdowns.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stated, "We put it together in some kind of way in the third quarter. When you're down 28 points and you get the game to a three-point game in the second half, that’s saying an awful lot... I'm proud of how the team played then, but we have to find a way to finish games."
For Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), Saturday's 38-0 home victory over Michigan State was just another in a string of dominating performances. The victory was the Badgers' fourth shutout of the season, and it came against arguably one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
How dominant has Wisconsin been this season? Here are some statistics, to help put this in proper perspective:
- Outscored opponents by a combined 255-29
- Outscored opponents by a combined 152-3 in the first half
- Scored as many defensive touchdowns (four) as it has given up
- Allowed only 13 third-down conversions in 83 chances
Wisconsin at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -31
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
This is very much like a stereotypical Wisconsin offensive attack — a mauling offensive line with a dominant tailback pounding the opponent into submission. Jonathan Taylor was held to 80 yards on 26 carries by Michigan State but still contributed two touchdowns in the romp over the Spartans. Illinois has been giving up about 201 yards per game on the ground and may struggle to slow down one of the most efficient rushing attacks in college football.
And while he doesn't throw the ball a lot (doesn't need to), junior quarterback Jack Coan is completing 76 percent of his passes and has thrown just one interception this season to go with his eight touchdown passes. Coan does a good job spreading the ball around as six different Badgers have 12 or more catches, led by wide receiver Quintez Cephus' 19 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns. Taylor leads the team with four touchdown catches, one of the reasons why he's the nation's leading scorer with 18 total trips to the end zone.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Matt Robinson had a solid game against a decent Michigan defense, but this Wisconsin unit has been clamping down on more experienced quarterbacks and making them suffer through some miserable Saturday afternoons as a result. Senior running back Dre Brown was a positive factor for the Fighting Illini against Michigan with 39 yards and a touchdown on eight carries during Illinois' rally. It may be tougher sledding against a Wisconsin defense that has given up just 44.7 rushing yards per game.
If that's not enough, the Badgers get after the quarterback (23 sacks, tied eighth in FBS), create plenty of turnovers (14 total, including 8 INTs), and as was mentioned earlier are the stingiest in the country on third down. Wisconsin's 16 percent conversion rate on third down is five percent better than the next team (Kansas State, 21 percent) and 10 percent better than No. 2 in the Big Ten, Ohio State (26 percent).
Illinois put up a valiant effort at home against Michigan, but this Wisconsin defense manhandled that same Wolverines team, 35-14, and is playing with an intensity that the Fighting Illini just does not have the capacity to match. Look for Wisconsin to put this one away early and to be able to rest their starters as they look forward to a huge matchup in Columbus against Ohio State on Oct. 26.