Coming off two straight losses, Wisconsin looks to grab their first conference victory this Saturday. The Badgers will travel down to Champaign where they’ll face off against former Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema and the Illinois Fighting Illini.
After losing 38-17 against Michigan, Wisconsin sits at 1-3 on the season and 0-2 in conference play. Wisconsin hasn’t been in this position very often. The last time the Badgers started the season 1-3 was back in 1990, ironically losing to the wolverines.
Four days short of 30 years since Wisconsin last fell to 1-3. It was a blowout Michigan win that did it that year, too. pic.twitter.com/9dsBg2hNyf
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 2, 2021
With that, all eyes now turn to the Illini. After losing in Champaign back in 2019, Wisconsin got their revenge defeating Illinois 35-0 to start the 2020 season. It was the Graham Mertz coming out party where the Sophomore QB threw 5 touchdowns and by far his best game as a Badger.
Here are my keys to the game this Saturday afternoon.
Limit Illini Rushing Attack
Even though the Illinois averages just a bit over 20 points per game, their rushing ability is a real threat. Averaging 187 yards per game, the Illini currently sit 40th in the nation in rushing. While a young core, Illinois is led by sophomore Chase Brown, freshman McCray, and freshman Reggie Love. Combined the group has over 850 yards carried and any one can be used at any time.
Although a lot of promise for a young group, Illinois has not faced a defense like Wisconsin. The Badgers are third in the nation in total yards allowed per game and second for total rushing yards. With the job Wisconsin has done up front, I’d expect them to continue that success. That being said, they can’t afford to sleep on this Illinois run game.
If Illinois is going to find success, they’ll need to do so in the air. Bielema has not named the starting QB for Saturday between Senior Brandon Peters and sophomore Artur Sitkowski. Between the two, Sitkowski can be a real threat. In his first two games as the starter, Sitkowski completed 59% of his passes and threw for five touchdowns. However, he followed this up with an inefficient game against Virginia and was back to the #2 quarterback. To top that off, Peters hasn’t been much better. Although more efficient, the senior QB has thrown half as many times as Sitkowski and has only counted for 1 touchdown.
In the end, Illinois is going to need to find a QB that sticks. Going against this Badgers front seven, they may need to do so in a hurry.
Badger’s Need O-Line Dominance
Inconsistency has really killed the Badgers on offense this season and that’s in part of their offensive line. Unlike the offensive lines of the past, Wisconsin just hasn’t had that top group like before. Although the spurts have been there, it simply hasn’t been enough.
So what can be the issue? Part of Wisconsin’s troubles has been them facing off against some stellar defenses. Penn State, Notre Dame, and Michigan all have great front sevens. They get creative and forced the offensive line into difficult positions. That being said, Wisconsin simply can’t get bullied like they have against these top teams.
According to Pro Football Focus, Michigan recorded 29 quarterback pressures (hurries, hits and sacks) Saturday against Wisconsin. The Badgers only had 29 passing snaps. Elite pass rush by the Wolverines.
— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) October 3, 2021
Even though Wisconsin has done a ton of shuffling, there really hasn’t been one particular group that has been better. If the Badger’s are going to win games, the offensive line has to show more dominance. By doing so, this will give Graham Mertz more time to throw and gain some confidence. This will also allow the Wisconsin staple run game to flourish as well.
It’s not all gloom and doom for this offense but the line has to be better. If they can string together a few strong performances coming up, this will go a long way when facing off against Iowa on October 30th. It won’t be easy but this group has the ability to do it. Now, lets see it happen.
Find Rhythm Early on Offense
Although blown out, there was actually some upside to the game (at least in the first half). After four consecutive three-and-outs, Wisconsin strung together a 78 and 63 yards drives to put points on the board. To go from down 10-0 to down 13-10, it gave Wisconsin some life. However, after being sacked on 3rd and 9, Graham Mertz left the game with an injury. From there, all hope was taken away. Michigan would go on to score 25 unanswered points until Wisconsin scored a late touchdown at the end of the game.
Although we don’t Mertz status for the game, it’s likely the QB will be back out there to start in Champaign. If not, Chase Wolf will get an opportunity at QB1. Regardless of who is the starter, the Badgers must start fast and find rhythm early. Fair too often this season Wisconsin has been unable to get anything going early on offense. With just 10 total points in the first quarter in four games, it’s clearly not been good enough to beat teams.
It’s not like Wisconsin hasn’t had opportunities to score in the first quarter either. With numerous missed opportunities in the redzone, missed/blocked field goals, and turnovers, Wisconsin hasn’t put their offense in great positions. By getting points early, it allows your defense to be more aggressive and take more chances. With an already stellar group, dialing up more blitzes would help create more turnovers, something this group hasn’t done much of.
We have every right to be frustrated by this offense. The lack of consistency has really hurt this team. However, if the can start scoring early, it could jump start this team. All I hope is Mertz can unlock that performance from a season ago and get a much needed win in Champaign.
Wisconsin Must Play a Complete Game
Looking back on Wisconsin’s losses, one thing that constantly stands out is their inability to play a complete game. Whether it be the offense, defense, or special teams, we haven’t seen that complete game as a whole group.
Yes, Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar but it hasn’t been enough to win games. Many times, the offense hasn’t been able to score enough points and the blame has fallen back on them. But our special teams hasn’t been stellar either. Besides Badgers punter Andy Vujnovich, there’s been too many mistakes from the group (and even he hasn’t been perfect). Whether it be missed kicks, blocked field goals, or giving up returns, it’s been underwhelming.
If there was ever a time for Wisconsin to correct their wrongs, these next three games would be it. I’m not saying the Badgers have to be perfect on all three phases but a solid game from the group as a whole would go a long way. It’s a long season and it hasn’t gone the way the group has wanted it to go. However, if guys can step up and make plays as needed, this team can turn a new page on the season. One hopefully in the right direction.