The Wisconsin football team (4-2 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) has been running on all cylinders after throttling Minnesota 42-13 to retain possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the eighth-straight year and is looking to carry that momentum into Saturday’s game against Illinois (2-4, 6-4).
The team will rely on junior running back Montee Ball, who broke the Big Ten Conference record with his 27th trip to the endzone, and the Heisman hype has continued to escalate.
“Montee ball has a lot of talent and its all the tangibles, all the things he does in a leadership aspect which is pretty impressive,” senior quarterback Russell Wilson said. “I’d probably have to vote for Montee because he’s my teammate and they call him Moneyball.”
Ball will look to add his total touchdowns and infiltrate the end zone against a Fighting Illini run defense that ranks second best in the conference, holding opponents to a mere 114.9 yards on the ground per contest.
Breaking through the Illinois defense may be more difficult as usual this weekend, as the Badgers will be without starting center junior Peter Konz, who sustained a dislocated ankle in the game against the Gophers. However, head coach Bret Bielema is excited for backup center sophomore Ryan Groy to showcase his talent.
“Pete is the best center in college football that ive seen play the game so anytime you lose someone of that caliber it obviously hurts in a certain regard,” Bielema said. “But I’m extremely excited for Ryan. He’s been a very unselfish player, has done really anything for the team and just a good kid who really wants a challenge.”
In addition to a stout run defense, Illinois has an aggressive pass rush led by junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks.
“Mercilus has a knack on the pass rush, bend the corner very well and is very efficient with his hands,” Bielema said.
With Mercilus’s pass rushing ability in mind, Wilson discussed his tactics on evading the pass rush and extending plays to keep drives alive.
“You have to make sure you are stepping up in the pocket, throwing the ball on time, making sure you are gaining positive gains every single play and go from there,” Wilson said.
Wilson will be on the lookout for sophomore tight end Jacob Pederson, who has emerged as a viable target in the redzone and is tied for the most touchdowns by a tight end in the NCAA with eight.
“The advantages he has on linebackers and safeties is something you don’t see to often and I believe he’s one of the best in the country,” Wilson said.
The Badgers have not faced the Fighting Illini in over three seasons with the last meeting resulting in a 27-17 win for Wisconsin in 2008 as John Clay made his first career start.
Bielema admitted that the long period of time since the Badgers have faced the Fighting Illini could be a challenge and make preparation for the game slightly more difficult.
“They changed both coordinators, offensively and defensively, so they are a considerable different since the we last played them so that presents a challenge,” Bielema said.
Fortunately, history has been on the Badgers side as Bielema has boasted a 17-2 record for games played after Nov. 1.
He attributes that record to the conditioning and the physical mentality entrenched in the minds of his players.
“I think our program really tries to understand you can’t have success in the end if you don’t the work up front,” Bielema said.
With Penn State losing to Nebraska and Purdue pulling off an upset over Ohio State, the Badgers again control their own destiny in the Leaders Division on the path to the first Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3. If Wisconsin wins the two remaining games on its schedule, then it will find itself in the title game.
Wilson said the team simply needs to embrace their current situation and focus on the task at hand.
“I believe that things happen for a reason and we have a lot of talent on this team, a great conference to play in,” Wilson said. “We are in a great situation and we are expected to take care of that. We need to focus on what we can control.”