The teams: The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0) vs the Illinois Fighting Illini (0-0)
The time: 7 p.m. CDT, Friday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: BTN with Brandon Gaudin and James Laurinaitis in the booth and Rick Pizzo on the sideline.
The last time: A 31-point favorite, Wisconsin turned the ball over three times, including twice in the fourth quarter, as Illinois pulled a shocking upset with a field goal as time expired last year.
The series: Wisconsin leads 42-37-7
The line: Wisconsin -20
The Badgers injury report:
QB Jack Coan (foot)
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Mertz time
The time that so many Wisconsin fans had been hoping for will arrive Friday night in Madison — Graham Mertz will make his first start at quarterback. It comes due to senior Jack Coan being out indefinitely following foot surgery, but that hasn’t taken any of the luster off of the most anticipated starting debut since Russell Wilson in 2011.
“I really don’t look at it a ton,” Mertz said of all the outside noise and excitement. “For me, I just try to focus on what I can control.
“I think the biggest thing for me right now is just execution and playing with that confidence I had in high school. I think I’m finally hitting that stride right now with the offense.”
Mertz came to Wisconsin in the spring of 2019 as the highest-rated quarterback to sign with the Badgers in the online recruiting rankings era. After seeing action in two games last fall, now is his time.
“Stay in the moment,” quarterbacks Jon Budmayr said of his advice for the redshirt freshman. “There’s going to be good things, bad things, you’ve got to stay steady and you’ve got to understand and trust your preparation.”
2) Replacing JT
No single player is going to replace the production of Jonathan Taylor. The running back is the only player in FBS history to run for 6,000 yards in just three seasons. But the Badgers are expecting to have a very good running game even without Taylor, as they lean on senior Garrett Groshek, along with sophomores Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo.
“I am confident in that group. I’m really confident in them,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “JT brought some great attributes to what he did and how he executed. You know what, so will Grosh, and so will Nakia and so will Isaac, and the whole group. It’ll be their personality on it, and their skillset on it, but I’m excited for it.”
A year ago against the Illini, Wisconsin managed just 156 yards on the ground and only 3.6 yards per carry. But most of the defensive line that held the Badgers in check must be replaced, as well as leading tackler Dele Harding. The Illini do return large portions of their linebacker and secondary groups.
There is a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Watson and Guerendo got “nicked up” recently and their status for Friday is up in the air. If they are limited or can’t go, the Badgers have been working fullback Mason Stokke at tailback. It’s a position he played in high school at Menomonie, running for 1,740 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. He also has experience in pass protection, something the other young tailbacks, including freshman Jalen Berger, don’t have.
3) Replacing Quintez
Not only is Wisconsin entering the game without its leading passer and rusher from a year ago, the Badgers are also without their leading receiver from last season in Quintez Cephus. His 901 yards receiving were more than the rest of the wide receiver group (885) combined.
But Wisconsin does have plenty of experience returning with four seniors atop the depth chart, highlighted by Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Those two are anxious to show what they can do when their number is called.
“It’s time for people to see or realize that we can do more than (what we have in the past),” Pryor said. “We can be actual deep-threat, top-notch receivers in this Big Ten conference.”
If production doesn’t come from the seniors, it will come from freshman Chimere Dike. The Waukesha product was the talk of fall camp. Teammates on both sides of the ball lauded his maturity, football IQ and play-making ability.
“He’s making plays when his number is called. That’s what this is all about,” Pryor said. “You may not get many opportunities, but when you do you just have to be ready for them. He’s making plays when the ball is thrown to him.”
4) Wisconsin pass rush
Wisconsin had 51 sacks in 2019 and more than half (27.5) came from Chris Orr, Zack Baun and Reggie Pearson. With two of those now in the NFL, and Pearson forced to sit out this season for medical reasons, the Badgers will be counting on others to step in.
Inside linebacker Jack Sanborn (5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Noah Burks (two sacks) will need to take a step, but they are also counting on the likes of sophomore Izayah Green-May and true freshman Nick Herbig to help.
“I do love the group. I love the depth that we have. I think there are some young guys really stepping up and are prepared to take a big jump forward,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “It is a bit of a feeling out process early in the year always. Just to find out who those guys are. I felt like after the first couple games last season we really understood who we were and how we were going to attack the quarterback. We’re going to find the same thing out here hopefully soon.”
It won’t just be the linebackers, though. With a veteran defensive line, they could help in collapsing the pocket. Guys like Matt Henningsen (four sacks), Isaiahh Loudermilk (three sacks) and Keeanu Benton (two sacks) have shown an ability to get after the quarterback.
5) Slowing the Illini
Illinois must replace its leading rushers from a year ago in Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, but the Illini return starting quarterback Brandon Peters (1,884 yards, 18 touchdowns, 8 interceptions) and leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (33 catches, 634 yards, 9 touchdowns).
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Imatorbhebhe had two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in last year’s win over the Badgers, and he has their attention.
“Definitely have our work cut out with him because he’s just not a body type you see every day,” Leonhard said. “The aggressiveness he plays with, it’s just a little bit different for some of the corners to see. I like our group. I like the matchups we have, but he’s going to have opportunities one-on-one in this game, and we’ve got to win them down the field.”
Another name to watch is Luke Ford. A former four-star recruit that was ranked as the No. 1 tight end in the nation in the 2018 class, Ford transferred in from Georgia and had to sit last year. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder will not be an easy cover for anyone.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
28 — That’s how many turnovers Illinois forced last season, tied for fourth-best in the country.
2.2 — That’s how many turnovers the Badgers averaged over their final eight games of the season, including three in the loss to the Illini
4-2 — That’s Wisconsin’s record under Paul Chryst (coach or offensive coordinator) when a quarterback is making his first start. Tyler Donovan (2006), Scott Tolzien (2009), Bart Houston (2016) and Alex Hornibrook (2016) all won their first starts, while Dustin Sherer (2008) and Jack Coan (2018) lost theirs.
0 — That’s how many fans will be in the stands for the game due to the pandemic. The Big Ten sent each school crowd noise tracks they can play with the decibel level hovering around 70 and going as high as 90. Wisconsin tried the tracks out during a recent scrimmage.
“It wasn’t super loud,” Groshek said. “Probably pretty comparable to when I played in high school (at Camp Randall Stadium), so like having a lower level high school game there is probably as loud as it got.”