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10 things to know about Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois and Wisconsin square off in the Illini’s homecoming game. Here are some interesting facts to know about the Badgers and Illini matchup

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It’s Homecoming in Champaign, where they claim to have formally started the tradition almost all colleges participate in these days. However, the Badgers are looking to spoil the Illini’s party and continue an undefeated start to the 2017 season.

While on paper this seems to be a big mismatch, what do the deep stats and tidbits about this series tell us?

Let’s look in to the 10 things to know about the Badgers vs. Illini for this Saturday’s contest.

 

1: Wisconsin is No. 1 in the Big Ten in run defense

This could be a big advantage for the Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Champaign. UW is giving up just 88 yards per game on the ground this season, which tops the Big Ten. Wisconsin is just one of two Big Ten and nine teams nationally giving up fewer than 100 yards per game. Only Alabama, Washington, TCU and Georgia are ahead of the Badgers in run defense so far this season. Meanwhile, Illinois comes in to this game dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 118.7 yards per game.

2: That is the number of quarterbacks Illinois have been using for most of the 2017 season.

For a large part of the season it was Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., but with a youth movement all over the field, last week the Illini took the training wheels off of true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas. After George struggled to start the game, Thomas came on in the hopes of sparking something. That didn’t really happen, as Thomas finished the game just 2 of 4 passing for 33 yards and an interception. He did add 79 yards on 10 carries on the ground, but he’s got to add something in the pass game if Illinois has a shot against the Badgers. However, George did finish last week 18-of-23 for 128 yards and one TD…so maybe the two-quarterback system could work going forward?

3: That is the number of times opponents’ drives that have started inside UW territory have resulted in a touchdown

Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar all season, but perhaps the most impressive part of what the Badgers are doing is their ability to come up big with their backs against the wall. Opponents have started in UW territory 10 times this season, with only three of those possessions ending in touchdowns. Last weekend, Maryland started at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line and got nowhere, settling for a field goal.

4: Illinois ranks 4th in the country in blocked kicks this season

If there’s a way for the Illini to change things up in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, a good way would be getting a turnover or something spectacular on special teams. One area that could be helpful to them is in their kick coverage teams, as they’ve blocked three kicks already this season and the Badgers have had a few blocked on them as well. Only Hawaii (5), Army (4) and Utah State (4) have more blocked kicks on the year. Illinois’ .43 kicks blocked per game rank fourth nationally, and you can bet they know UW has shown weakness in this area already this season.

5: That is the number of receiving touchdowns for UW wide receiver Quintez Cephus this season

After seeing early playing time as a freshman last year, there’s been no sophomore slump for Cephus. Instead, the Badgers have found a go-to wide receiver and a touchdown machine. Cephus leads the Badgers with five touchdowns on the year and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten for receiving touchdowns on the year. He’s only two off the lead shared by D.J. Moore of Maryland and Tyler Johnson of Minnesota. Cephus also leads the team with 25 receptions (tied with TE Troy Fumagalli) for 448 yards as well as the five touchdowns.

6: Illinois top running back averages 6.1 yards per carry, but will he play?

While the Illini offense has struggled to get going, one man jumped off the page early and that was true freshman running back Mike Epstein. He leads the team with 346 yards and has three touchdowns on the ground. Epstein has put up those numbers on just 57 attempts in five games played to date. But, he has missed the last two games and there’s been little word on if Epstein will be back in the lineup against the Badgers. If so, look for RaVon Bonner to be the main running back for the Illini.

7: It took just 7 games for UW freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to hit the 1,000-yard mark, tying the true freshman record for fastest to 1,000 yards in a season. 

Just how good has Taylor been? He cracked the 1,000-yard mark before 44 different FBS teams have even hit that mark. Taylor comes in to the Illinois game with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He’s first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, rushing yards and is the only Big Ten rusher in double digits on the TD front. Illinois run defense has been brutal all season, as Lovie Smith’s team ranks dead last in rush defense — giving up just over 210 yards per game to opponents. So, we have a massive advantage for Wisconsin’s run defense and offense. I’m sensing a pattern that may be established in this game.

8: Wisconsin is going for victory No. 8 in a row over the Illini on Saturday

UW currently owns a seven-game win streak in this series, including three straight in Champaign. Wisconsin’s former house of horrors has been kind for the most part recently, as the Badgers have won 5 of the last 6 games in Memorial Stadium as well. Illinois’ longest win streak in the series has been six games, but they led the overall series until the Badgers started this current win streak. Right now the series sits 40-336-7 in favor of the Badgers.

9: Illinois is converting on 90 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017

That’s an impressive rate on paper, putting the Illini third in the Big Ten in conversion rate on offense. However, the devil is in the details here, as only 10 of the 18 converted possessions have ended in touchdowns and the full six points. Illinois rate of 50 percent for touchdown conversions is 13th in the B1G, while the eight converted field goals puts the Illini second only to Michigan this season. Combine that news with the fact that Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert TD’s inside the red zone at 27.7 percent (tops in the Big Ten), and that’s another not-so-good news scenario for the hosts on homecoming.

10: Wisconsin is 10-1 in true road games under Paul Chryst

The Badgers’ lone loss on the road came against Michigan last season, a 14-10 decision. If you include neutral site games, the Badgers are an impressive 13-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium under Chryst. Illinois is not Michigan in terms of quality to say the least, but it should be worth noting that UW seems to have also played better on the road than at home so far this season as well. So far, the Badgers won 40-6 over BYU and 38-17 over Nebraska, breaking the Huskers’ 20-game night win streak inside Memorial Stadium.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.

What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.

Best Case Scenario

Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.

Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.

No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.

It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.

Worst Case Scenario

What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?

Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.

Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.

The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.

Most Likely to Happen

The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.

I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.

Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.

But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.

Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.

In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.

Best Case Scenario:

Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.

Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.

Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.

Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.

In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.

Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.

Worst Case Scenario:

Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.

Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.

If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.

Most Likely to Happen:

Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.

I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.

That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.

So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.

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Best, Worst case scenarios for Badgers Wide Receivers in 2019

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The heat of summer is upon us and the recruiting trail has been even hotter for the Wisconsin Badgers. However, that heat also indicates that the long offseason nightmare is about to be over.

With that in mind, we’re taking a summer-long look at each position group heading in to the 2019 season.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line |

Today, we flip back to the offensive side of the ball and look at a second skill position — wide receiver.

After what was supposed to be a breakout year for the group in 2018, what will this group have in store for 2019? Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios at play.

Best Case Scenario

If the Badgers want to get going in the pass game, the wide receiver group needs to step up the deep game in a big way. While A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have proven to be reliable assets, 2018 felt much like they all barely scratched the surface of their potential.

The trio combined for 95 receptions (which was 53 percent of all receptions as a team), 1,212 yards and 11 of 19 touchdown receptions on the year.

For this season, the best case scenario actually involves the quarterback position almost more-so than anything this group can do. The receivers could benefit from a consistently good passer at quarterback and a more open playbook as well.

Whether it is Jack Coan or wonderkid recruit, Graham Mertz, the consistency and trust to open up the playbook needs to be there.

Additionally, an increased role for speedster Aaron Cruickshank would be the best case scenario.

Worst Case Scenario

Danny Davis emerged as the most targeted receiver last season, catching 40 passes to lead all wide receivers on the team. He will enter his junior season with an increase in expectations and no off-field distractions like he had to deal with last season thanks to his stupid decision-making.

That aside, Davis is the most well-rounded receiver in this group and the one that could wind up be the deep threat that has been missing for awhile now. So, any injury to Davis would be bad news.

In fact, any sustained injuries to the likes of Davis, Pryor and Taylor would not be good. UW is very inexperienced behind this trio, and inexperience at QB and WR may not be a fun combination.

Dare I say, it would lead to UW not being back on top of the West division mountain?

Most Likely to Happen

I fully believe that the coaching staff will go in to the season knowing which quarterback they’ll go with and stick with. Confidence is key to helping this wide receiver group and I expect the Badgers offense to be much more balanced in 2019 than it was over the past two seasons.

Look for Davis, Pryor and Taylor to all increase their overall numbers and likely go over the 15 touchdown mark as a group. More importantly, I expect much more play-action and much more from the deep passing game too. That should be music to a talented, but under used group’s ears.

Don’t be surprised to see one of the Badgers wide receivers make a run at All-Big Ten honors as a result of that shift back to balance.

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Hill is Badgers QB in 2021 class

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With all the flurry of activity around the 2020 class, apparently someone wanted to bring the 2021 class some attention on Tuesday as well.

Following back-to-back linebacker commitments in the 2020 class, Wisconsin picked up a verbal commitment from 2021 quarterback Deacon Hill.

The 3-star player out of Santa Barbara, Calif. went with his gut despite the potential to earn offers from the likes of USC, Oregon and Oregon State — all much closer to home.

Instead, Hill chose the Badgers over official offers from Kansas State and Nevada to date.

The 6-3, 225-pound quarterback was first offered by Wisconsin quarterback coach Jon Budmayr in May. It was the first overall offer Hill received in the 2021 class.

Wisconsin was able to get out in front of the 2021 quarterback class after a pair of big targets in 2020 passed on offers from the Badgers. Once that happened, the focus turned to the next class and it paid off in building a quick and solid relationship with Hill.

It may not be a big home run get like Graham Mertz was, but then again the Badgers were hip to Mertz before most of the country was and that paid off as he developed.

Hill is much more physically imposing than most quarterbacks entering their junior season would be, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have mobility either.

Nevada’s more spread-orientated offense and Kansas State’s quarterbacks are certainly going to be mobile ones in the new offense that is being installed.

As for Hill, the 247Sports composite rankings have him as the No. 30 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class. But, given the small amount of attention paid to that class so far we’ll see where that ends up should Hill hit the QB camp circuit in the coming months and year.

UW will only be taking one quarterback in this class, so they certainly trusted their early evaluation of the tool set that Hill possesses and could posses by the time he is finished at Wisconsin.

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