As the first half of the football season finished out with a thundering victory over Northwestern, there remains a key aspect still waiting for Wisconsin: winning on the road.
Although the Badgers have competed well in both of their 2013 road contests, and even if they felt one of those losses was unmerited and unfair, a road victory has escaped their grasp in each attempt. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) is hoping to buck that trend Saturday under the lights in Champaign against Illinois (3-2, 0-1).
At this point in the season, the Badgers have to like their chances. Now more than two weeks removed from their last loss on the road, the Badgers are looking to build off what they thought was their most impressive performance against the Wildcats in a 35-6 victory. It was the first time the defense had seven sacks in nearly a decade. It was also the first time this defense felt whole this season.
“It took awhile to figure it all out,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “The previous couple of weeks I was asking some of the guys to do some things we used to last year, and it ain’t last year.
“I think we’ve identified the guys with certain skill sets that can help us win and we’re putting them in the position to do that.”
Those players that come to mind are redshirt sophomores Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy. McEvoy has made the well-documented move from quarterback to wide receiver and now starting free safety. Meanwhile, Caputo has moved around in a quieter fashion, from free safety up to the “F” linebacker position.
The two moves have benefited the Badgers in just a few weeks. McEvoy is able to use his 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism to lengthen the secondary. The shorter Caputo is a better tackler and was used in various blitz packages against the Wildcats. Together the two combined for seven tackles.
“We’ve got the people in the right spots, and I think we’re asking them to do the right things,” Aranda said. “As coaches we’ve identified the guys that can do the right jobs, and that really came through last week.”
It certainly did against the Wildcats, where the 3-4 defense finally showed its most aggressive face. Following Saturday’s game, redshirt senior linebacker Conor O’Neill noted that many 3-4 schemes remain that Wisconsin has yet to show. Aranda agreed they’ve still got a few cards left to play.
Though he enjoys setting the tempo as a defense, Aranda said Illinois will bring a different type of offense, one the Badgers will have to adapt to throughout the game. The Illini, under a new offensive coordinator, bring many different formations to the field, with anywhere from 1-5 wide receivers on the field.
“They’re kind of a team that does a little bit of everything,” senior nose guard Beau Allen said. “They do a lot of goofy stuff and different stuff with their personnel and grouping … We’re expecting them to do some different stuff and pull all the stops out.”
At the center of that goofy offense is senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who Allen actually played against twice at Minnetonka High School. Scheelhasse is a quarterback Allen knows well. He’s spent many snaps chasing after Scheelhaase, a dual-threat quarterback that has started for the Illini since 2010.
Scheelhaase has preferred his time in the pocket more this season, however, rushing for just 42 yards on 40 attempts through five games. Throwing the ball, he has already tossed eight more touchdowns in 2013 than during all of 2012.
Allen said the focus on Scheelhaase will come down to getting after him like the Badgers did against the pair of Wildcats quarterbacks last week. By flushing Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian out of the pocket, Wisconsin picked up a few of those sacks and forced their only turnover, a first quarter interception by freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
Shelton likes the idea of Wisconsin’s front seven moving Scheelhaase around. He wouldn’t mind grabbing another interception.
“We know he’s going to throw it,” Shelton said. “We just have to be in the right positions at the right time and just make the plays. We know the ball is going to be in the air and we’re going to have the chance to break on it and make a play.”
And those type of plays might be needed Saturday night. Although Illinois has not won a Big Ten game in more than two years (Oct, 2011), the Illini have played Wisconsin into some difficult contests over the years.
Last season, it took 21 fourth quarter points for Wisconsin to finally pull away at home. That came one year after former quarterback Russell Wilson and former running back and Heisman candidate Montee Ball found their offense trailing the Illini by 10 at halftime. Regardless of record, it never seems to be a cakewalk for Wisconsin against Illinois, and that’s something UW has kept in mind this week.
“You’ve got to think, it’s a night game, at their place … they’re probably going to wear some cool uniforms, stuff like that,” Allen said. “You can’t take any team in the Big Ten lightly, ever. That’s a huge mistake that some teams make sometimes.”