The Big Ten's wild West division will be on display this weekend when the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Wisconsin Badgers in Champaign. Both teams come into this game in major need of a victory. Illinois (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten) looks to start a winning streak after ending a four-game skid against Charlotte last week. Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2), on the other hand, is looking to bounce back after back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Michigan by a combined score of 79-30.
Illinois looks to re-establish its path to a potential bowl game, while Wisconsin aims to get out of the division basement. This also will be Bret Bielema's first game against the team he coached to three Big Ten championships from 2006 to 2012. A win Saturday will give him 100 victories for his career.
Wisconsin at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -10
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz is listed as questionable for this game. He left during last week's loss to Michigan due to a chest injury suffered during a third-quarter sack. He has been practicing this week but it's no guarantee he will be cleared to play on Saturday. Mertz is completing 56 percent of his passes for 681 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions thus far. The turnovers have been a big problem for him and Wisconsin as a whole. The Badgers are dead last in the country with a minus-nine turnover margin.
If Mertz is unable to go, Chase Wolf is the most likely candidate to get the start against Illinois. He took over for Mertz last week and also saw some reps in the Badgers' only win against Eastern Michigan four weeks ago. Wolf has completed five of 11 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. He's also thrown two interceptions and took three sacks against the Wolverines.
More has been put on the quarterbacks this season because Wisconsin hasn't been able to run the ball, which is something that hasn't been said about this program in a long time. But the Badgers enter this game eighth in the Big Ten in rushing offense (163.3 ypg), averaging just 3.8 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns in four games.
Chez Mellusi (332 rushing yards, 4.4 ypc, 2 TDs), and Issac Guerendo (160, 7.0, 1) lead the charge out of the backfield, but it's clear Wisconsin misses an explosive ball carrier like Jonathan Taylor. The offensive line also hasn't been playing up to the high standard that has become associated with the Badgers over the years.
The end result is an offense that ranks 10th in the Big Ten at 353 yards per game and is last in scoring at 19 points per contest. These struggles aside, Wisconsin should be able to find some success moving the ball against an Illinois defense that is giving up nearly 420 yards (12th in Big Ten) and 25 points (11th) per game. The Fighting Illini have been particularly vulnerable against the pass (292.2 ypg, 13th) but it remains to be seen if this is an area the Badgers can exploit. Linebacker Jake Hansen, along with defensive backs Sidney Brown and Tony Adams are the leaders of Illinois' defense (have combined for 94 tackles) and figure to be quite active on Saturday.
When Illinois Has the Ball
You can expect running back Chase Brown (52 att., 379 yds, 7.3 ypc, 3 TDs) to get the ball early and often, especially after he ran for a career-high 257 yards against Charlotte last week. That was the fourth-largest for a game in school history. Given new head coach Bret Bielema's background, it's no surprise that the Fighting Illini are focused on running the ball. They are sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 187.2 yards per game, which is nearly 25 yards more per game than Wisconsin.
Illinois will need to churn out yards on the ground as the passing game remains stuck in neutral. Quarterback Brandon Peters threw for just 78 yards in last week's win over Charlotte. In fact, since returning from his early-season shoulder injury, Peters has completed just 34 of 71 pass attempts for 363 yards, a touchdown, and an interception while getting sacked eight times. He's averaging just 5.3 yards per attempt but Bielema remains committed to Peters as the starter,
The Illini's shortcomings through the air are why they rank just ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (355.3 ypg) and contribute to them scoring around 21 points per game. And things won't get any easier against a Badgers defense that is tops in the conference and second in all of FBS against the run (46.8 ypg) and is third nationally in total yards allowed per game (250.5 ypg). Even wtih Wisconsin's offensive woes, the defense has continued to do its job, and then some.
Badgers to watch on defense include linebackers Jack Sanborn (24 tackles) and Nick Herbig (3.5 sacks), end Matt Henningsen (2 sacks), and cornerback Faion Hicks (6 pass breakups), but this is a solid unit across all three levels.
The Badgers lead this all-time series 43-38-7, and have won 10 of their last 12 games against Illinois. The Illini's last win was that monumental upset in 2019. Last week's win over the 49ers was a major confidence booster, and the Illini will put up a fight on behalf of their head coach. But their lack of a passing attack will make moving the ball against Wisconsin's stout defense that much harder, and will result in the Badgers leaving Champaign victorious.
Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Illinois 20
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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.