Wisconsin locked on West title, Illini up next

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst laments his team's small margin of error.

“Right now, we're not that explosive of an offense,” he said. “Right now, we're not putting a ton of points on the board.”

Yet the 7th-ranked Badgers (7-2, 4-2) are in position to win the Big Ten Conference's West Division if they can win their final three regular season games, starting with Saturday's visit from Illinois.

The reasons? Defense and discipline, traits that will play well anywhere. Wisconsin is a top 15 unit nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. It ranks fifth in FBS in scoring defense, giving up 13.8 points per game.

And the Badgers play a clean game week after week. They are second in FBS in fewest penalties with only 24 in nine games and are on pace to be the least-penalized team in school history. In its last three games, Wisconsin has committed exactly two penalties.

“It comes down to everyone being disciplined and everyone really trusting their technique and trusting each other,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “Just doing their jobs sound. I think it's a testament to the way we practice and the way we're taught the game.”

First-year coach Lovie Smith is hoping to instill some of that discipline into his program. The former NFL head coach has experienced some rocky times with the Fighting Illini, a team with a spate of potential NFL draft picks in their front seven that simply doesn't have enough high-level players to consistently win in the Big 10.

Illinois (3-6, 2-4) led the conference in penalties most of the year, a spot it finally vacated last week when it sent Michigan State careening to its seventh straight loss with a 31-27 verdict that kept its slender bowl hopes alive.

“What you see is a traditional Big 10 powerhouse,” Smith said. “Big emphasis on running the football, play-action passes, good hard-nosed defense on the other side of the ball, playing together as a team. That's what we're going to see.

“We know we're going to have to be at the top of our game. We'll need to play better than we did this past week. We realize who we're playing, but what an opportunity for our young football team to have a chance to play a great team like that.”

On paper, this doesn't look like a good matchup for the Illini. Their offense has had trouble scoring, hampered by injuries at the quarterback position that have forced them to start third-stringer Jeff George, Jr. the last three games.

After struggling in most aspects of the game in one-sided losses against No. 2 Michigan and Minnesota, George engineered a game-winning drive against Michigan State. George found Sam Mays for a 16-yard scoring strike with 1:40 left, the highlight of a 13-of-29, 140-yard day.

“I think you just get to the point where you keep pounding the rock, eventually you see a crack,” Smith said. “I think you just stay the course and eventually you get over the hump. I think that's where we are – we got over the hump last week.”

Last week's hump looks more like an anthill compared to this one. George appears likely to start again as senior Wes Lunt, the quarterback for the past 2 ½ seasons, continues to nurse a back injury that has sidelined him for four straight games.

It's not known if wide receiver Malik Turner, by far Illinois' leading receiver, will be able to play after sitting out the Michigan State game with a concussion. Turner's potential absence will put more pressure on a running game fronted last week by Kendrick Foster's 146-yard, two-touchdown effort.

As for the Badgers, they're coming off a 21-7 win last week at Northwestern in which they outrushed the Wildcats 190-39. Corey Clement rushed 32 times for 106 yards and a touchdown, helping Wisconsin possess the ball for more than 40 minutes.

Sporting five freshmen or sophomores in their offensive lineup, the Badgers have been hurt by inconsistency. They rank 98th in scoring, 110th in touchdowns and 113th in red-zone conversion ratio. They are on pace to average their fewest points and yards since 2004.

“We've played good teams,” Chryst said. “Against good teams, you're going to have a smaller margin for error.”

But Wisconsin's defense has taken up the slack, and then some.