After surviving one of the toughest tests of the season Saturday at Ohio State, the UW defense hopes to keep the momentum rolling as they travel down to Champagne, Ill., this weekend to take on the Fighting Illini.
Waiting for them in Memorial Stadium will be the Big Ten’s leading passer, Kurt Kittner, and the second-ranked offense in the conference.
The Badgers have grown accustomed this season to preparing to playing top-rated quarterbacks, and this Saturday proves to be no different. Illinois senior Kittner leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (240 yards per game) and is ranked by many experts to be the top NFL prospect at the quarterback position. Although Wisconsin hasn’t played against Kittner since 1998, during his freshman season, UW head coach Barry Alvarez and the rest of the team are still fully aware what he is capable of doing.
“He’s really matured a lot since we last played him,” Alvarez said of Kittner. “He’s definitely one of the more dangerous quarterbacks in the league.”
UW’s cornerback Mike Echols, who was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, relishes an opportunity to play against a quarterback of Kittner’s ability and explained how it provides additional motivation heading into the game.
“The secondary gets real pumped to play in a game like this,” Echols said. “It gives us a chance to make some plays and force some turnovers.”
Turnovers have been hard to come by when playing the Illini this season, as they’ve only lost the ball seven times in their first six games.
If UW hopes to silence Kittner, the secondary must focus their attention on Kittner’s favorite target, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd, who is returning from a year of absence, leads the team in receiving and provides a dangerous threat downfield to the Wisconsin defense.
“He’s a big-play guy,” Alvarez said of Lloyd. “A real dangerous playmaker.”
Along with Echols, cornerback Scott Starks and safeties Michael Broussard and Joey Boese need to be at the top of their games in order to contain Kittner and the rest of his passing attack.
Equally as tough as intercepting Kittner is the task of getting to him. Illinois’ offensive line has only allowed seven sacks so far this season and allows ample time for Kittner to find an open man. The Badgers’ defensive front, led by Wendell Bryant and Delante McGrew, must find a way to pressure Kittner and force him to scramble out the pocket ? something he’s reluctant to do.
Although the Illini lack the presence of one dominating running back, UW should not overlook its three-headed running game of Rocky Harvey, Antoineo Harris and Carey Davis. The trio has combined to average 146 yards rushing per game and keep opposing defenses honest by not allowing them to focus entirely on stopping the pass.
“The Illini offense is difficult to prepare for,” Alvarez explained. “We must respect both the running game and the passing game. . . . They’re extremely effective at both.”
Nick Greisen, the Big Ten’s leading tackler, and the rest of the linebacker corps must be just as ready to step up and fill in the gaps as they are to drop back into pass coverage.
In the aftermath of a turbulent two weeks, where the best and the worst of UW’s defense showed, the job doesn’t get any easier next weekend. Needing to win at least three of the last five games this season to advance to a bowl game, the team knows its fate rests largely in the hands of the defense.
“We’ve got the personnel on our defense to match up with the Illini,” Echols said. “I’m confident we can stop them.”