As we turn the page on September, conference play heats up and temperatures start dropping around the country. The brisk winds fuel memories of meaningful games in packed stadiums filled with the frozen breath of each passionate fan. The fall weather just hits differently, making it feel a little more like football season. Every conference has its own identity, but none is as recognizable as Big Ten football.
Regardless of the teams, most of the Big Ten's conference games are determined by which power-rushing attack can wear down the tough, physical defense on the other side. It's not always easy on the eyes, but it's consistent. Bettors know what to expect from Big Ten teams, and there is some value to their brand of football. The slower-paced games can help flush out a certain level of variance. Also, the lower totals make the underdogs more attractive in a game where points are at a premium.
The Week 5 slate features several intriguing Big Ten matchups, headlined by Michigan and Iowa. However, I targeted a different game that will most likely follow a similar game script. The 3-1 Illinois Fighting Illini travel to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in what should be a very typical Big Ten matchup.
Illinois Fighting Illini (+7) at Wisconsin Badgers
As much as coaches try to downplay these situations, this is a game of special significance for Illinois. Head coach Bret Bielema returns to Wisconsin, where he previously led the Badgers to three Big Ten championships during his six-year run. It'll take a lot more than motivation to win games at this level, but I take comfort in knowing how important it is to Bielema to put the best version of this Illinois team out on the field Saturday. That's certainly a factor when backing a seven-point underdog. Illinois is going to fight for our money.
We are likely getting a 60-minute crash course on smash-mouth football, so rushing success will be critical. That's where the Illini can unleash their strongest weapon. Chase Brown's 151 yards rushing per game leads all Big Ten running backs, and his success will allow Bielema to keep his offense balanced. Both quarterbacks, Tommy DeVito and Graham Mertz, have struggled with untimely interceptions this season. The defense that can force the opponent away from the running game will put itself in a great position to create turnovers and flip the field. Those types of impact plays are incredibly valuable in lower-scoring games.
That's where I think Illinois can cause Wisconsin a lot of problems. Through the first four games, the Illini have done a much better job forcing negative plays and putting offenses in disadvantageous positions. They have racked up 11 sacks on the season, only one fewer than Iowa and Michigan State, who lead the conference with 12. Their 3.84 yards per play allowed also ranks second among Big Ten teams. The Badgers' defense hasn't cracked the conference Top 10 in either metric.
If Illinois is the team that's having success moving the chains behind Brown, getting sacks and putting Mertz in second- and third-and-long situations, there is a good chance the Illini are live in the fourth quarter. They also bring the Big Ten's No. 1 red-zone defense into the game, which can play a massive factor if this one comes down to the wire. Field goals are your best friend whenever you are backing an underdog with seven points in your pocket. In a classic Big Ten matchup where neither team projects to score in the upper 20s, I am happy to take my chances with the underdog getting a free touchdown.