The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (1-3, 0-2) at the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4, 1-2)
The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
The TV coverage: Big Ten Network with Mark Followill and Matt Millen in the booth, and Elise Menaker on the sideline.
The last time: Graham Mertz threw five touchdowns and the Badgers whipped Illinois 45-7 in the season opener for both teams in 2020.
The series: Wisconsin leads 43-37-7
The line: Wisconsin -11
THE BREAKDOWN: 4 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Time to get healthy
By several different metrics, Wisconsin has played the toughest schedule in the country. With games against Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame, the Badgers have faced three teams that have spent time in the top-10 of the AP poll and are 14-1 combined overall. For all their struggles to this point in the season, at least some of it can be attributed to the talent they faced in three of their four games this year.
Illinois would seemingly provide an opportunity for Wisconsin to get back on track. Yes, only one of the Illini’s four losses has come by more than one score, but those setbacks include falling to UT-San Antonio, along with losses to Purdue and Maryland.
If Wisconsin is going to right the ship, it will start with a dominating victory over an Illinois team that features quite a few of the same players that were on the end of a 45-7 beatdown by the Badgers last season.
2) Graham Mertz returns
Wisconsin will have its starting quarterback when it takes the field against Illinois. Mertz was knocked from the Michigan game with a chest injury and was eventually taken to a hospital. But he was cleared to practice this week and will be under center on Saturday.
The last time fans saw Mertz he was showing what makes him so intriguing. In the final two drives of the first half against Michigan, Mertz completed 8-of-10 passes, including several while under duress with pinpoint accuracy. His last two tosses were absolute dimes to Chimere Dike, the second of which went for an 18-yard touchdown where he showed the touch and preciseness of a high-level quarterback.
Now comes Illinois, which was on the receiving end of five touchdowns and just one incompletion from Mertz in his starting debut last season. No one is saying Mertz is going to have a repeat performance but picking up where he left off against the Wolverines would go a long way to getting the offense back up and running at a serviceable level.
3) Blocking needed
It might be a little over the top to say the blocking effort from Wisconsin’s offensive line against Michigan was the worst performance by the unit in the Paul Chryst era, but it’s probably in the mix. Mertz was constantly under pressure and the Badgers gave up six sacks overall. They got nothing going on the ground, averaging a paltry 1.3 yards per carry, and totaling just 43 yards for the game.
The effort was a continuation of struggles against elite competition this season, as Penn State and Notre Dame each won their battles with the line. For Wisconsin to function as an offense that cannot be the case. Guys that have shown to be solid to good players in their time at Wisconsin – tackles Tyler Beach and Logan Bruss for instance – have to play to that level moving forward.
Can that happen against a team ranked 12th in the conference in total defense like Illinois? It better.
4) You look familiar
For the first time since quitting as Wisconsin’s coach to takeover at Arkansas following the 2012 season, Bret Bielema will take the field against the Badgers. Bielema is in his first year as the Illini’s coach after spending the last three seasons working in the NFL.
Bielema and Chryst worked together for seven years in Madison, with the latter leading the offense during one of the more successful stretches in program history. Bielema understands how Chryst operates and that knowledge is buoyed by the fact that his staff includes two other former Badgers – defensive line coach Terrance Jamison and defensive backs coach Aaron Henry – both of whom played for Wisconsin when Chryst was the offensive coordinator. Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller also served as an offensive graduate assistant under Chryst in 2011.
How much will that impact Saturday’s game? Probably not a ton but it is worthwhile to note their familiarity with the inner workings of Wisconsin’s system.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Wisconsin has won 10 of the last 11 games against the Illini and 14 of the last 16. The Badgers have been favored in 14 of those games but Saturday’s 11-point spread is the third fewest they have been favored by during that stretch.
— Wisconsin’s offense has obviously struggled much of the year and that is illustrated by its 1-3 record but also by where the team ranks nationally in three key stats: Third-down conversions (128th), red zone scoring (120th) and turnover margin (last).
— Illinois has struggled to throw the ball this season, but especially in the last three games (121 ypg). Some of that has been a strong running game, which including a 257-yard effort from Chase Brown last week. But no team has beaten Wisconsin by running the ball, so Brandon Peters and the Illini passing game is going to have to produce to pull the upset.
— Illinois has lost four times, but only one of those games has been decided by more than one score. In the other three losses – UT-San Antonio, Purdue, and Maryland – the Illini lost by a combined 14 points.