Fall is the king of all seasons.
It’s not just the leaves on the trees becoming picturesque in their changing colors, the crisp smell of the cool autumn air that pierces your lungs or even the wafting smell of an early-afternoon barbeque.
Fall is simply the best because it means football is in full swing.
With temperatures predicted to be in mid-40’s for today’s game between Illinois and Wisconsin, it’s time to bundle up, fire up the grill and preview today’s interdivision matchup.
Last week for Wisconsin: The Badgers fell in heartbreaking fashion to the Nebraska Cornhuskers on the road 30-27, surrendering 20 unanswered points in the second half in what turned out to be the second-largest comeback in Huskers’ history.
Last week for Illinois: Coming off an embarrassing 52-24 throttling at home by lowly Louisiana Tech the previous week, Illinois also lost its conference opener to Penn State 35-7. In case you’ve been living in a cave the last year, Penn State has been decimated by players leaving for other programs following the heavy sanctions of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal on the football program, making the home loss for the Illini that much more astonishing.
Who’s in better shape heading into Saturday: Wisconsin
I had a chance to talk to a football beat reporter from The Daily Illini this past Monday on WSUM’s “The Student Section” and he gave me the impression that this Illini team is basically dead in the water. Following a loss last week to Penn State, an Illinois’ player cited the team needed to redevelop, something that usually isn’t the mark of a united team at this point in the season. While Wisconsin is trying to adjust to new assistant coaches across the board, Illinois’ players—ones recruited by former-head coach Ron Zook—are struggling to mold into first-year head coach Tim Beckman philosophies. Wisconsin may be enduring an overhaul of coaches, but at least the head coach remains the same (Bielema is actually the second-most tenured coach in the division, behind long-time Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz).
What Wisconsin wants to do: Run the ball (even though it’s the worst in the conference at doing so)
No matter what the odd and somewhat suspect play-calling of first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been (through five games Wisconsin has the lowest average yards per game offensively of any team in the Big Ten), it’s abundantly clear that he wants to stick with Wisconsin’s identity as a run-first team. The success, however, has not been the same. A poor push at the offensive line has resulted in small gains on the ground, which in turn has revealed the Badgers lack of a solid-starting quarterback. Against Nebraska, Canada was extremely aggressive in the first-half with starting quarterback Joel Stave in the pass game. But when the run-game went south, so did the openings on pass plays. If Wisconsin wants to win comfortably, the offensive line will need to play four complete quarters of old-school, grind-it-out football. Because if you can’t win the battle of the trenches, chances are you aren’t winning the game.
What Illinois wants to do: Spread it out
Still running a spread attack, Beckman has big-play athletes on his team. Bubble screens, option draws out of the shotgun and five wide sets are all working parts of the Illinois attack. If there’s one thing former-head coach Ron Zook had success in, it was bringing NFL-caliber athletes into the program. So if quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is fully healthy Saturday, Wisconsin will face a dual-threat quarterback who has shown himself capable of being a difference-maker. Junior wide receiver Ryan Lankford has emerged in for the Illini as a go-to target in the passing game, hauling in four touchdowns and 347 yards through five games. However, Illinois has been stagnant offensively this season, ranking ninth in the conference for total scoring offense and 11th in total offensive yards.
How they match up: Wisconsin’s defenses have traditionally struggled to match-up against a spread attack on offense. Last week against Nebraska’s option-read oriented style, the defense broke down in the second half, allowing quarterback Taylor Martinez over 100 yards on the ground. Wisconsin’s personnel on defense is meant for playing against other bruising, pro-style offenses in the conference, so its play against spread-teams is always a testament to the preparation and film study in the week leading up to the game, as well as the mental execution of the players. Linebackers have to watch their reads and the secondary can’t bite on play action but at the same time, the corners for Wisconsin will have to stay aggressive and play tough press-coverage, as Illinois loves to run dump down passes on bubble screens.
As far as Wisconsin’s offense versus Illinois’ defense, the Badgers have the worst run and pass numbers in the entire Big Ten. It hasn’t mattered whom the Badgers have played either, the results are always inconsistent no matter who the opponent.
Wisconsin player to watch: Melvin Gordon
It doesn’t take a genius to understand and see that the Badgers’ redshirt freshman running back is a freak athlete. The burst of speed, the fluidity of his cuts and his overall style of play are a combination that hasn’t been seen in quite some time in Madison. So it’s strange that after a 112 yard performance on eight carries againt UTEP, Gordon touched the ball just twice last weekend against Nebraska. Look for the speedy kickoff returner/running back to see plenty of action against Illinois.
Illinois player to watch: Josh Ferguson
Yes, Josh Ferguson can truly do it all. The freshman is fourth in the conference in total purpose yards per game, even ahead of Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Running the ball, receiving or returning kicks, Ferguson is the kind of freak athlete that can turn nothing into something, and in a hurry.
What a win for either team means: An even conference record and a crucial win against a divisional opponent. This game features two of the four bowl-eligible teams in the Leaders division. With Ohio State and Penn State both facing bowl-bans this season for off-the-field issues, only Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana remain eligible for a trip to the Big Ten Championship. And since every eligible team, except Purdue who has yet to play a conference game, lost last week, the race for a spot to Indy is wide open. The winner goes to 1-1 and the loser goes to 0-2 in conference play. This game could serve as a tiebreaker later down the road in a tight conference race, so there’s plenty to play for.