Badgers refuse to look past faltering Illini

BY foxsports • November 18, 2011

Less than a month after a pair of losses scrambled their national title plans, No. 15 Wisconsin now is in line for a nice consolation prize: The Badgers have to win two games to make it to the first Big Ten title game.

The first test is Saturday at Illinois, a team that's lost four in a row and, after a week of off-field problems, could be playing for coach Ron Zook's job.

The Badgers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) might be tempted to look past the troubled Illini (6-4, 2-4) to the final regular-season game against Penn State or, given that school's problems, even on to the Dec. 3 conference championship in Indianapolis and the Rose Bowl berth a win there would mean. Nope, most of them said this week.

''You can't. We just can't,'' guard Kevin Zeitler said. ''Nothing's going to work out if we don't focus on now. We just can't.''

Spoken like a man whose seen his plans ruined before. Wisconsin was undefeated cruising toward a possible shot at a national title before back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State ended that dream.

Bad as the Badgers may have thought that was, that feeling of disappointment doesn't quite compare to what's happened in Champaign over the past few weeks.

Though not flying quite as high as Wisconsin, the Illini were riding their own 6-0 start before the offense all but stopped scoring. Illinois scored about 35 points a game through those wins. Since then the Illini are scoring 11 a game, and haven't scored in the first half in any of those four losses.

That alone had some fans calling for Zook's job; athletic director Mike Thomas says he'll evaluate Zook's performance after the season.

But things got worse. Last weekend Kenny Knight and Jordan Frysinger, freshmen receivers redshirting this season, were arrested following a fight. Later the same night, starting linebacker Trulon Henry was shot in the hand at a party where he and Zook say he went to help teammates who'd called him. Henry will miss the rest of the regular season.

Given all that, a game with Wisconsin probably isn't what Illinois needs.

''There's no one else probably in this state or anywhere else that gives us a chance to win,'' Zook said at a press conference this week that he later walked out of over a question about his job security.

There are any number of reasons few would favor Illinois. But if the Illini have a chance, it'll probably be because of their defense.

Excluding a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on a worn-out Illini defense in the 31-14 loss to Michigan, Illinois has given up 16.5 points a game through the losing streak. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sounded weary this week as he thought about drawing up something that might slow the Badgers.

Koenning said quarterback Russell Wilson presents a special problem.

''He throws darts - you have to put the film on slow to watch the ball,'' he said with a laugh.

Then Koenning has to think about Montee Ball, the running back who just set the Big Ten record with 27 touchdowns in a season (24 rushing). And an offensive line Koenning speculates might be the biggest on Earth, though it'll be without 6-foot-5, 315-pound center Peter Konz. He's out two to four weeks with a dislocated left ankle.

The best weapon Koenning has Saturday might be defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. Mercilus leads the country in sacks with 12 1-2, while Buchanan has six.

''I think both of those two defensive ends, in perspective, might be the best pair of defensive ends in the league from what I've seen,'' Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. ''And we've already faced some good ones in Ohio State and Michigan State, but those two, in particular, are very, very gifted.''

Wilson echoed Bielema, saying Mercilus and Buchanan have the look of NFL pass rushers.

''They look like pro-style defensive ends - they're tall, really athletic, fast, coming around the edge really well,'' the quarterback said. ''You really have to make sure you're stepping up in the pocket, throwing the ball on time.''

One reporter asked Bielema this week how the Badgers could go in two weeks from a point where fans thought the season was all but over to two wins away from the Big Ten championship game. All but forgetting about what had gone wrong or what is over the horizon, he said.

''The only reason we're in this conversation is we've been able to focus on the now the last two weeks,'' he said.

Mercilus said the Illini, however difficult it may be under the circumstances, have to adopt the same strategy.

''Basically forgetting about the past, don't dwell on it, focus on the future,'' Mercilus said. ''We just want to go out of here with a winning record.''


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