Wisconsin has a golden opportunity to gain positive momentum on Saturday when they visit old friend Bret Bielema and the Illinois Fighting Illini.
I know it sounds crazy to say, but if Penn State goes on the road and beats Iowa this weekend, Wisconsin will still have a chance to win out and win the Big Ten West. That’s getting away ahead but with a win on Saturday, the season is not over by any means.
Wisconsin enters the contest with a distinct advantage at many positions. The defense has performed like one of the nation’s best, the Badger backfield is set up for more success and Illinois presents a great matchup for Graham Mertz to continue his positive momentum.
For Wisconsin to win the game, these three stats will need to finish in its favor:
Oct 2, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Roman Wilson (14) tries to catch a pass as Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Caesar Williams (21) defends during the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Wisconsin Badgers have had turnover issues on both sides of the ball thus far—especially against the three ranked opponents they’ve faced.
The offense: 3 turnovers per game (2 interceptions, 1 fumble)
The defense: Only 0.8 turnovers forced per game (0.5 interceptions, 0.3 fumbles)
Meanwhile, Illinois enters Saturday turning the ball over only once per game on offense and forcing 1.7 turnovers per game on defense.
Wisconsin has the clear edge in talent all over the field. But we’ve seen turnovers kill the Badgers chances at beating good teams.
That turnover margin will need to flip on its head Saturday for Wisconsin to return to its winning ways.
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) gains yardage against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
A lot of Wisconsin’s offensive struggles last Saturday, and throughout this season, was due to inconsistent play from the offensive line in both run and pass situations.
We know the Badger rush defense is on par with any in the country. They’re giving up only 45 yards per game and 1.6 yards per carry.
But the Wisconsin offense only averages 3.7 yards per carry with the ball in its hands, a number that plummeted when the team ran for only 43 yards on 32 carries last Saturday against Michigan.
The Illinois defense is no Michigan. But for Wisconsin to control the game, that dominance on the ground must return.
Illinois, on the other hand, comes in averaging 4.5 yards per carry on offense and allowing 3.8 on defense. Bret Bielema will rely heavily on his ground game in order to generate offense—an approach that plays right into Wisconsin’s strength.
The biggest matchup here is Chez Mellusi, Jalen Berger, Isaac Guerendo and Braelon Allen against the Illini rush defense. We will need to see another classic Wisconsin performance on the ground.
Special teams gaffes
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers kicker Collin Larsh (19) kicks a field goal during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
This is not an official stat you’ll see in a box score or in a game report.
But Wisconsin’s special teams have cost the team opportunities to win games this season. Week 1 against Penn State saw a short field goal blocked, Week 4 against Notre Dame saw a kick returned for a touchdown and last week against Michigan saw a punt muffed inside the 10 yard line.
Wisconsin has had a lot go wrong thus far this season. One of the easier-fixable things is special teams handing away points and possessions. The unit will need to fix mistakes and be a positive part of Wisconsin’s game on Saturday.