The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (2-2, 0-1) vs the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1, 0-1)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: On BTN with Lisa Byington and Anthony Herron on the call and Krystle Rich on the sideline.
The last time: Wisconsin ran for 391 yards, including 131 from Braelon Allen in a 24-0 win in Champaign in 2021.
The series: Wisconsin leads 44-37-7
The line: Wisconsin -7
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Bouncing back
Wisconsin got embarrassed last week at Ohio State. The 31-point loss matched the biggest defeat of the Paul Chryst era and it wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The Badgers got dominated from the jump in nearly every phase and did so on national TV with the entire country watching. What kind of answer will they have in a game that is the closest thing to a must-win if they have any hope of winning the Big Ten West?
2) Welcome back
For the first time since November of 2012, Bret Bielema will be stalking the sidelines at Camp Randall Stadium. The only difference is he’ll be on the visiting side as he is in his second season leading the Illini. Bielema got his first head coaching job at Wisconsin in 2006 and led the Badgers to three Big Ten titles before shocking the college football world and bolting for Arkansas. Had he returned to Madison in 2013 or 2014, the boos would have been overwhelming. But considering nearly a decade has passed, the type of reception he gets will be interesting to watch.
3) Hello, defense?
Wisconsin has built a reputation as a defensive powerhouse but it was anything but against Ohio State. The defense gave up 52 points and 539 yards – both the most it had given up since the 2014 Big Ten title game. There were pre-snap miscues, guys not playing within the scheme and then straight up physical mistakes. Some of that can be blamed on the talent of the Buckeyes, but the Badgers didn’t even give themselves a chance to be successful in a lot of situations.
The defensive leaders, specifically linebacker Nick Herbig, have promised a strong response against the Illini. They’ll need it, especially against running back Chase Brown, who currently leads the nation in rushing.
4) Get it rolling
A year ago, the Badgers rushing offense was struggling mightily heading into the game against Illinois. A lack of cohesiveness along the offensive line and inexperience in the backfield led to inconsistent production. That day, though, the group came together to the tune of 391 yards. While Chez Mellusi led the club in rushing, it was the debut of Braelon Allen in a feature role that really jump-started things.
Flash forward to this year and Wisconsin could use another game like that. While the Badgers are averaging 211 yards per game on the ground, they haven’t been able to get a ton going early in games against the good opponents they’ve face – Washington State and Ohio State.
The Illini should provide another stiff test as they are allowing just 87.3 yards per game on the ground and 2.9 yards per carry. Helping matters for UW is the return of left tackle Jack Nelson, who missed last week’s game with an illness.
5) Let Mertz Cook
Through three weeks, Graham Mertz looked like a different quarterback than the one fans had seen the previous two seasons. He was decisive and accurate with the ball, while not making the bad throw into coverage. He was a major bright spot even in the loss to Washington State.
Against Ohio State, though, Mertz never got comfortable. He threw an early interception, underthrew what should have been a long touchdown to Skyler Bell just before halftime and finished with just 94 yards passing. Still, the Badgers need to have enough trust in the junior to let him sling it this week. While Illinois has a talented defensive backfield, the only way Wisconsin is going to hit its potential as an offense this season is to trust Mertz and the passing game to make plays.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito, a transfer from Syracuse, already has nine touchdowns this season. As a team, the Illini had a total of 13 passing touchdowns last season.
Wisconsin has beaten Illinois in 15 of the team’s last 17 meetings. That includes eight straight games at Camp Randall Stadium with the last loss come 20 years ago. All but one of the 15 wins came by at least 10 points, though this is the first time the Badgers haven’t been a double-digit favorite since 2015.
Skyler Bell leads Wisconsin with 201 yards receiving to go along with a pair of touchdowns. A freshman hasn’t led the Badgers in receiving for an entire season since Jonathan Orr in 2002.
Wisconsin lost tight end Clay Cundiff to a broken leg against Ohio State. He’ll leave a big void to fill after accounting for 16 percent of the Badgers receiving yards and 28 percent of their touchdowns in the first four games.