Wisconsin will finally open their 2020 season this Friday night under the Camp Randall lights. They will host the Illinois Fighting Illini, the team that caught the Badgers by surprise and upset the 6th ranked team in the country last October, in fact, almost a year to the day. This time, the Wisconsin Badgers will be ready. I think it’s fair to say a lot of Badger players had this game in mind all offseason. Running back Nakia Watson let it be known that they haven’t forgotten about last year.
#Badgers RB Nakia Watson likes opening against Illinois:
“Illinois definitely deserves a butt whipping from last year.”
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 1, 2020
Wisconsin vs. Illinois Preview
When you look at these two teams, the first thing you really notice is that they have both lost a good amount of production. Wisconsin needs to replace Jack Coan, Jonathan Taylor, Quintez Cephus, and two of their offensive linemen in Tyler Biadasz and Jason Erdmann. And that’s just on offense! They also need to replace linebackers, Zack Baun and Chris Orr. Combined, Baun and Orr combined for 153 total tackles, 33.5 tackles for a loss, and 24 sacks. That’s huge production on defense they will need to replace.
Illinois has a similar situation. They lost their two leading rushers, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. Together, they combined for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns. They also lost their leading tackler, Dele Harding, who had an astounding 149 total tackles last year. He was also tied on the team for the most interceptions with three. Defensive lineman Oluwole Betiku Jr. declared for the draft after last season. He led the team with nine sacks in 2019.
Both teams will need to find a way to replace a lot of playmakers from last season, but I think Wisconsin is much better equipped to do so.
The Badgers have opened as 23.5-point favorites against their opponents from down south. Illinois will almost certainly use that and Watson’s comments as bulletin board material. After last year, Illinois has a right to have some confidence. It will be important for Wisconsin to come out hot and keep their foot on the gas right away. They can’t let Illinois even get a little confidence that they can beat Wisconsin for a second straight season.
Graham Mertz will make his first career start on Friday. Luckily, he will have an experienced offense around him. According to the depth chart that Wisconsin football released, he will have a pair of senior receivers to throw to, along with tight end Jake Ferguson, who was a nice security blanket for Coan the past two seasons. Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek will lead the rushing attack for the Badgers. Overall, this offense should be just fine. This Illinois defense was not great last season, and after losing Harding and Betiku, I don’t see how it will be improved.
On defense, the Badgers will face Brandon Peters, who will be in his second season as the Illini starting quarterback. If there is something to say about Peters, is that he won’t put up big numbers, but he will take care of the ball. He had just eight interceptions last season. Turnovers are what really decided the game last season. Illinois had just one turnover compared to Wisconsin’s three.
Peters does have a nice weapon on the outside. Josh Imatorbhebhe was by far Illinois’ best receiving threat last season. He caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns. He is the player on the Illini offense that Jim Leonard and this Badger defense will need to focus on. They need to make someone else beat them. If they can shut Imatorbhebhe down, they should have absolutely no problem winning this game.
Overall, Wisconsin should have no issue beating Illinois. In fact, I think they will cover the -23.5 point spread. This will be a nice game for the new Badgers to get their feet wet. I think Watson will be in for a big game, and Mertz will be able to get into a nice rhythm and throw for two touchdown passes.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if we ended up seeing backup quarterback Chase Wolf in the game at some point. I think Wisconsin just has so much more talent. Pair that with the hunger for revenge and I just don’t see how Wisconsin loses this game. I think the Badgers start their 2020 campaign with a big win.