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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Halloween treat: Cupcake snack for Badgers

FB_RPIt's understandable why the No. 17 University of Wisconsin football team could be distracted heading into their contest with lowly Illinois this Saturday.

The Badgers are 7-1 (4-1 Big Ten), having won four straight contests convincingly and they have two huge matchups against Penn State and at Iowa still looming. The Fighting Illini, however, are floundering again at 2-6 (1-3 Big Ten) and are finding newer and more inventive ways to lose games every week.

Not to mention the Badgers will be in Madison for Halloween for the first time since 2001.


So, how will the Badgers keep their head straight in what has the feel of a major trap game? According to head coach Bret Bielema and UW players, senior leadership is expected to lead them through the torrent of distractions.

"We aren't thinking about anybody but Illinois right now," senior safety Joe Stellmacher said. "All that other stuff will come eventually. Right now, it's all about Illinois."

"I asked our seniors to stay after our team meeting [Tuesday]," Bielema said. "I think that our team is what it is today because of our senior leadership, in particular on offense. John Stocco and Joe Thomas, defensively Joe Monty, Roderick Rogers, Joe Stellmacher, and Mark Zalewski, those six guys, who are our only senior starters, have greatly influenced all the young players in our program.

"And I really asked them to, in the next several weeks, try and instill in those young players the mentality that's got them to [this] point is right now … I asked them to really pass that on as best they can over the next several weeks."

That leadership will be put to the test this weekend, as the Illini — while sporting a pedestrian record — are certainly much improved from a year ago, with an improved defense and more dynamic, if error-prone, offense.

"There is improvement," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "I know sometimes it's hard to see, but there is improvement. I think if you go back and compare the football team from a year ago, there is a lot of improvement."

Illinois upset Michigan State in its second conference game of the season, and looked poised to start a Big Ten winning streak, jumping out to a 25-7 lead over Indiana before the Hoosiers mounted a furious comeback that ended with the Illini falling on a field goal as time expired.

While Illinois has been in something of a tailspin since losing its last two games, the contests have been hard fought. In losing to Penn State last weekend, the Illini outgained the Nittany Lions 358 yards to 184 and held a 9-3 lead at halftime before tossing the game with turnovers and shoddy special teams play.

"They went against Penn State and gave them everything they wanted, were within five points, I think, with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter," Bielema responded when asked if his players might overlook the Illinois due to their conference standing. "That should be a good enough reason right there to make sure that there isn't going to be any type of issue along that line."

Illinois' defense, the worst in the Big Ten last year — giving up almost 40 points a game — is significantly more stingy with opponents averaging 25.6 points a contest.

The two-touchdown improvement comes from a rushing defense that has improved by almost 100 yards per game from 2005.

"Defensively, there is no question they are playing hard, they're chasing the football," Zook said. "For the most part, other than a couple of games, the thing that we said we couldn't do this year is give up the big plays."

For the Illini, like most of UW's opponents, the first order of business is to try and find a way to shut down P.J. Hill and the Badger running game.

"Wisconsin has always been known for big offensive linemen," Zook said, lauding on the UW blockers up front. "These guys are big, athletic guys that move around well … I mean, you do the same things time after time, year after year, and pretty soon you're pretty good."

When Illinois has the ball, Wisconsin will be worried about mobile true freshman quarterback Juice Williams, a candidate for Big Ten Freshman of the Year accolades right behind Wisconsin's Hill.

Williams has run for just under 40 yards a game, adding an explosive element to the Illini offense, despite his under-par passing numbers. Williams has completed only 42.2 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns to seven interceptions, not boding well for the frosh going into a game against the conference's best pass defense.

"Juice is very, very good at running the football," Bielema said. "All of a sudden, the quarterback and another running back are coming out the other side running full-speed option."

Regardless of the opponent, the Badgers' biggest foe might be themselves this weekend with the distraction of a Madison Halloween.

Interestingly enough, Wisconsin has had a rather dubious recent history when playing Halloween weekend home games, going 3-2 in their last five contests (dating back to 1992). One of the victories is considered to be one of the most tragic moments in UW history, when Wisconsin upset Michigan 13-10 in 1993 and fans tried to storm the field, resulting in 73 people sustaining serious injuries.

Bielema isn't worried that his team will be able to overcome the adversity.

"You guys all know I'm a big believer in the 1-0 mentality," Bielema said. "I don't … say it as much as I need to because they say it to each other and without even thinking about it."

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