Four quarters of complete, mistake-free football.
That is what the Wisconsin Badgers (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) need to accomplish going into this week’s conference matchup with Illinois (2-3, 0-1) in their first Leaders Division matchup of the year.
The Fighting Illini are just one of three teams aside from the Badgers that are bowl eligible in 2012 in the Leaders Division, making Saturday’s game a crucial one in the Big Ten picture.
Illinois comes into Camp Randall struggling to find its identity. Under first-year head coach Tim Beckman, the Illini have already suffered their fair share of bumps and bruises. With three losses already on the season, including an embarrassing home loss to lowly Louisiana Tech and heavily-depleted Penn State, Illinois comes into Saturday’s game searching for its first big win.
But then again, so are the Badgers. After playing what was perhaps its greatest half of football this season, Wisconsin fell on the road to Nebraska in heartbreaking fashion, allowing 20 unanswered points in the second half and eventually falling 30-27.
But defensive co-coordinator Charlie Partridge said the Badgers will not be suffering a hangover from the emotions experienced in the loss to the Huskers.
“I think the biggest thing is to put it to bed Sunday when we watch the film and learn everything we can from everything that went wrong and that went right Saturday night,” Partridge said. “And then move on to the next opponent, get on to our film study, get on to our Illinois prep and take things one day at a time. … We just need to play a four-quarter game.”
The Badgers will have an odd task to face during preparation this week. The Illini have two legitimate quarterbacks who could potentially start this Saturday in junior Nathan Scheelhaase and sophomore Reilly O’Toole.
While the dual-threat Scheelhaase, last year’s starter, has battled through injuries early in the 2012 season, O’Toole has shown himself to be capable as the signal-caller for the Illini, throwing for 514 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 131 yards and a score.
But coaches and players alike from Wisconsin said they believe they will see a fully healthy Scheelhaase under center during Saturday’s game. Wisconsin’s defensive tackle Beau Allen has seen the athletic talent of Scheelhaase at the prep level as well as the collegiate, noting the quarterback has surprising levels of athleticism.
“I played him in high school. … He’s been a little banged up but he’ll be back this week and we’re anticipating a good [Illinois] team,” Allen said. “He was a very mobile quarterback (in high school); he’s a really good, athletic player.”
Saturday’s game will feature two of the worst scoring offenses in the conference, as Illinois and Wisconsin both average 22.6 points per game, tied for second-worst in the Big Ten. However, the Illini also have the worst scoring defense in the entire conference, giving up an average of 27.8 points per game.
When it comes to total yards per game, the Wisconsin offense is worse than Illinois, averaging a mere 309.2 total yards per game — the lowest number in the conference — compared to Illinois’ 349.8, the second-lowest total.
With both offenses entering the game unusually stagnant, it looks like once again the victor will be decided by the better defense. That is a good sign for Wisconsin, considering it has the conference’s sixth-best scoring defense and an animal at middle linebacker in Chris Borland.
Borland was a huge factor in last year’s 28-17 win against Illinois, a game where the Badgers trailed at halftime 17-7. Recording a staggering 16 tackles and two forced fumbles, Borland thoroughly dominated any blocker or look the Illini threw at him. After being named a consensus first team all-Big Ten pick just a season ago, Borland has picked up where he left off, recording 43 tackles and three sacks so far this season in his revised role in the Badgers’ pass rush.
Whether it is chasing down a running back from the middle or flying over a would-be blocker to record a highlight-reel tackle — cue last week’s film against Nebraska — Borland will most likely serve as a key difference-maker against Illinois.
“I think he’s just learned some of the intricacies of being the (middle) linebacker,” Partridge said. “There’s so much to it; [there are] so many checks put on his plate, and I think this year he’s making those checks with confidence, getting his eyes in the right place and because of that continuing to make more plays.”
Borland, a defensive captain, is still not completely satisfied with his play. Citing defensive breakdowns in the second half that allowed 444 total yards against Nebraska and an uncharacteristic 263 yards on the ground, including 107 yards to quarterback Taylor Martinez, Borland said Illinois will serve as yet another challenge for Wisconsin’s defense.
“Well, it’s a divisional game and we understand the talent they have regardless of their record,” Borland said. “Illinois always has talent, and that’s more than enough for us to get amped for this game.”
This game will be the 79th all-time meeting between the two teams, with Illinois leading the series 36-35-7. Under head coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers are 3-1 against the Illini, with their lone loss coming in Champaign, Ill., in 2007 to an Illinois team that eventually went to the Rose Bowl.
The last time the two teams met in Madison, the Badgers won 27-17 in 2008.