BY JEFF BERNIERWhen the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) travel to Champagne, Illinois Saturday to take on the Fighting Illini ( 4-2, 1-1 Big Ten), it’ll mark the first time in a quite a while where the game will mean this much to both teams.
The Badgers will need a big road win in order to keep pace with Big Ten leading Iowa. The Fighting Illini, despite canning their head football coach less than a week before the season even began, are also in the running.
Despite facing an abnormal amount of injuries this season, the Badgers have been able to hang their hat on their outstanding defense to win ball games. Wisconsin currently ranks seventh nationally in total defense, giving up just 272.4 yards per game. Wisconsin has also only given up 10.9 points per game, with only 2 of their 7 opponents thus far being able to score more than 10 points in a game against them.
Current Illinois head football coach Bill Cubit knows the challenges his team’s offense will face when they line up against Wisconsin on Saturday.
“The Edge guys and their linebackers are so active,” Cubit said. “They’ll find out what your protection is and they’ll find a way to get their best player on your worst player.”
Illinois is no slouch defensively either, as the Fighting Illini rank 30th nationally in total team defense, allowing only 332.5 yards per contest.
The Badgers are hoping to get a big boost from their star running back Corey Clement, who hasn’t played a down since the opening game at Alabama. Clement will be a game time decision for the Badgers.
Despite missing arguably their most valuable offensive player for much of this season, the Badgers have still had a good enough run game to where opponents must game plan for that part of Wisconsin’s attack.
Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal have filled in nicely for the Badgers, combining for over 800 yards and eight scores through seven games.
If Clement cannot go Saturday, look for the Badgers to continue to pass the football. Senior quarterback Joel Stave is having a fine senior season. Stave has completed 62.3% of his passes while on pace for a 3,000 yard season. Senior #1 receiver Alex Erickson comes into the game with 42 receptions for 549 yards, but just one touchdown. He and junior Robert Wheelwright, who leads the Badgers with three touchdown receptions, remain the favorite targets for Stave.
Wisconsin ranks fourth in the Big Ten, averaging 251 passing yards per game. After Clement went down with injury, Stave knew he’d be relied on much more within the Badgers offense.
“I knew we would have to throw it a little more,” noted Stave. “We’d have to be more balanced.”
Illinois will for sure be without its star tailback Josh Ferguson. The senior, who will miss his second straight game with a shoulder injury, has ran for nearly five and a half yards per carry. The Fighting Illini are very thin at running back. Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn will assume much of the load Saturday where he will face one of the best run-stopping defenses in the country in Wisconsin.
Illinois is just 1-9 against Wisconsin in their last 10 meetings. The lone win came in 2007, a 31-26 upset in a season that saw the Fighting Illini make it to the Rose Bowl.
Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Illinois 13
Game time: Saturday, October 17, 2:30 PM CT on BTN, BTN2; Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL