MADISON - Illinois almost ruined Wisconsin’s season last year in Madison. This time around, Illinois is looking to do it again and make a statement about there own program in the process.
Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0) hopes history repeats itself, as the Badgers look for their 15th consecutive win - and school-record tenth straight in Big Ten play – when they travel to Champaign to take on a revitalized Illinois (4-1, 2-0) squad that is off to its best start in six years.
The Illini, who were on their way to their fourth straight last-place finishes in the Big Ten, put a definite scare into Wisconsin last year, leading the 24-14 at halftime during Madison’s famed Halloween weekend, only to watch the Badgers outscore Illinois 20-0 in the second half to win by six.
“That [comeback] said a lot about the team last year,” senior center Marcus Coleman said. “We’re losing, not playing good on either side of the ball, and showed that we have perseverance and were able to get things done.”
While Illinois entered the game a dismal 2-6, its fortunes have dramatically changed in head coach Ron Zook’s third season. Last weekend, Illinois beat a ranked Big Ten team for the first time at home since 1991 with a 27-20 victory over then-No. 21 Penn State last Saturday at home.
“Anyone can beat anyone on any day,” Coleman said. “It goes to show that you can never overlook an opponent. That’s why Coach B’s into the 1-0 mentality. You have to prepare each week the same.
“They’re playing good football right now. We’re going to have to prepare very hard for them.”
One the other hand, Wisconsin defense is not playing good football. In last week’s three-point win over Michigan State, the Badgers gave up 564 yards if total offense. Ironically, it was the most yards Wisconsin has allowed since giving up 570 in a loss to Illinois on Oct. 20, 2001.
“We may not be the prettiest horse in the race, but at least we’re on the track,” Bielema said. “We didn’t tackle very well at times. We had 75 snaps [against State] and five of those went for 250 yards. We have to correct those fundamentals.”
The Badgers run defense will surely be tested, as Illinois boasts the sixth best rushing offense in the nation with 255.6 yards per game. Illinois junior Rashard Mendenhall is becoming one of the best running backs in the conference, averaging 122.4 yards per game, and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams, who frustrated the Badgers with his running last year, is another duo-threat quarterback that UW has struggled with [53.4 completion percentage and a 4.1 yards per rush average].
“I really like the way that Mendenhall has developed as, you can see he’s gotten better as a football player,” Bielema said. “They’re the number one team in the conference in rushing, and they’re that for a reason. Their quarterback knows how to run it as well as their running backs … They’re all very gifted, very good athletes.”
Wisconsin has a solid running back of its own in sophomore P.J. Hill, who has rushed for over 650 yards and nine touchdowns in just five games. Last season against Illinois, Hill left the contest early with a neck injury – an injury Bielema said Hill needed some ‘toughen up pills’ for. Needless to say, Hill is out to prove something to the Illini.
“He might come out with a little attitude this week,” Coleman said. “I am sure he wants to get after them a little bit.”
With all factors considered though, unranked Illinois is a 2.5 point favorite over the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Badgers; a surprise too many of the people involved.
"That's got to be a Wisconsin guy trying to get them upset,” Zook said during his weekly media conference. “I don't know how you can have a team [favored] that's been 2-10 the last two years playing the No. 5 team in the nation. I think that's somebody just trying to get them upset."
Whether it’s a ploy of not, the spread-offense that Illinois runs has given Wisconsin troubles this season and will continue if the defense doesn’t rebound from last week’s struggles. Otherwise, Wisconsin won’t be as lucky as the week before
“Every team is dangerous,” defensive lineman Nick Hayden said. “We have to go in with the right mindset or we’re not leaving with a victory.”
No. 5 Wisconsin (5-0) vs. Illinois (4-1)
Date/Time - Saturday, Oct. 6 at 11:02 a.m. CDT
Stadium – Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois (Astro-Play / 57,078)
Television - ESPN (Dave Pasch, Andre Ware, Erin Andrews)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Illinois leads 35-33-7
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 30-24, on Oct. 28, 2006 in Madison
UW has won five of the last six at Memorial Stadium and has won four straight against Illinois overall, averaging 33.3 points in those games.
Brian Calhoun tied a school record with five touchdowns in the Badgers’ last game in Champaign.
Wisconsin and Illinois played the last tie game in NCAA Division I-A history, a 3-3 deadlock in the final game of the 1995 season.
Wisconsin owns the nation's longest winning streak at 14 games. UW also has a school-record nine-game winning streak in conference games.
Wisconsin's 36 wins since the start of the 2004 season are the most in the Big Ten. Nationally, only USC (40) and Texas (38) have more wins than the Badgers during that time.
Badger placekicker Taylor Mehlhaff, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last season, has made all seven of his field goal attempts and all 18 of his PATs this season. He also leads the Big Ten in net kickoff yardage (47.2) and touchbacks (eight).
A spread offense and a multi-talented quarterback spell doom for Wisconsin. Illinois is riding higher than ever after beating ranked Penn State and Wisconsin is barely hanging on by its fingertips. All signs point to an Illinois victory. Wisconsin does, however, have experience on its side and a lot of that UW defense remembers from last year how good Illinois is offensively. Wisconsin’s streak has to come to an end sooner or later, but I don’t think it’s going to happen at Illinois. Another high scoring game with a lot of offense barely goes Wisconsin’s way.