No. 5 Wisconsin rolls into game at Illinois (Oct 28, 2017)
Wisconsin celebrated its homecoming last week with a 38-13 rout of Maryland.
On Saturday, the No. 5 Badgers are heavy favorites to spoil the homecoming of Big Ten foe Illinois. Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) is off to its best start since 2004, positioning itself for a shot at the College Football Playoff.
The reasons are many, but the biggest might be a defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in three critical categories -- rushing (88.0), scoring (13.3) and total defense (265.4). What's more, it's a defense that sounds far from satisfied.
"We hold ourselves to a high standard on defense and when things don't go almost perfect, people start questioning what's going on," said inside linebacker T.J. Edwards.
Based on past results, there shouldn't be many questions after this week's game, either. The Badgers haven't allowed more than 24 points in any game; the Fighting Illini (2-5, 0-4) haven't scored more than 24 in any game.
Illinois is experiencing an almost total rebuild under second-year coach Lovie Smith. The Illini have started a whopping 14 true freshmen, including 10 in a Sept. 15 loss at unbeaten South Florida. In all, 21 true freshmen and 31 total freshmen have seen the field in the first seven games.
The results have been predictable. The Illini have lost five straight games, getting pushed around the line of scrimmage during most of those losses. While there have been bright spots, the team's overall youth works against its chances on a weekly basis.
"Whenever you have an opportunity to play a top five team like this, you have to be excited about that," Smith said. "Homecoming is always special too, and you want to play your best game. It's always about our next game, and for us we need to play our best game this week."
If Illinois is to play its best game, it will need three things to happen.
First, it has to find a way to slow down Wisconsin freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor, who under different circumstances -- say, Penn State's Saquon Barkley not being so dominant -- might get Heisman Trophy consideration.
Taylor has rushed for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first seven college games. He's rushed for 200 or more yards three times. Against an Illini defense giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground, Taylor seems to a good bet to have a big day.
"I think it's part of the reason why JT came here," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "He wants to be a running back in a place where there's been some good running backs."
Taylor became the sixth freshman in FBS history to reach 1,000 yards in seven games. Among the others to do it: NFL Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (Florida) and Marshall Faulk (San Diego State). Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma), former Badgers star P.J. Hill -- who did it in 2006 -- and North Texas' Jamario Thomas were the others.
"It's very humbling to be mentioned with those guys," Taylor said.
Another way the Illini can make this a game is to make a big play or two early. They have hope in that department with the emergence of freshman wide receiver Ricky Smalling, who has 13 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the last two games.
Smalling is averaging a team-high 15.6 yards on 22 receptions, which is even more impressive considering the issues Illinois has experience trying to establish a downfield passing game. Quarterback Chayce Crouch started the first four games but was unable to make plays downfield, and current starter Jeff George Jr. has a good arm but has also been turnover-prone.
"What he's shown is that he can make plays," Smith said. "We are going to have those one-on-one matchups on the outside, and Ricky has made those plays."
Finally, the Illini probably need to produce a score or set one up in the kicking game. They realistically can't count on moving up and down the field at will on Wisconsin's defense, so an easy score via special teams could enhance their chances at the upset.
"I have a ton of respect for coach Smith. You know they're going to be well-coached," Chryst said. "I've never been a part of a football game where we weren't challenged in terms of adversity. It's all a matter of being prepared."