No. 1: Keep the Pocket Clean
It is no secret that redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is starting his first game this Friday against Illinois. The highly-touted quarterback will face a defense that held the Badgers to just 23 points last year in a major upset victory in Champaign. The Illini defense also sacked quarterback Jack Coan twice and tallied five tackles for loss in that same game.
It is also worth noting that the Badgers lost one of their best offensive linemen in Tyler Biadasz, who now starts at center for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
If the Badgers want to succeed on Friday night, they need to protect Mertz at all costs and give him a clean pocket to make the correct reads. Young quarterbacks tend to get flustered very easily in their first high-pressure situations against college defenses, and while Mertz has impressed in practice and has some limited in-game reps, Friday night will be his first true test.
No. 2: Stop the Option
Last year’s disappointing loss to the Illini was a result of a quirky offense that the Badgers don’t see a lot of in the Big Ten. Illini head coach Lovie Smith employs a run-heavy offense reliant on read-option plays and zone reads. Last year’s Badgers got burned multiple times off of quick-slant zone reads and run-pass option plays.
Two Illinois running backs totaled over 70 yards that game, and starting quarterback Brandon Peters is returning for his senior season. Peters’ knack as a field general in Smith’s offense was evident last year to an unsuspecting Badgers defense; this year, however, they should know what to expect.
No Illini receiver in last year’s game totaled more than three receptions; on the other side of the ball, the Badgers had four receivers with five receptions each. Clearly, offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s (no relation to Lovie) offense relies on breaking away for big plays. If the Badgers can limit the effectiveness of the RPO, that should cut out a major issue from last year’s debacle.
No. 3: Keep a chip on your shoulder
This is going to be a strange game. Camp Randall will be totally empty; even families of players are not allowed to attend and cheer on the Badgers. The atmosphere of the Camp will be one that Badger players haven’t experienced before, despite former Badger Chris Orr comparing the lack of fans to Northwestern’s normal home crowd.
In addition, the Badgers are nearly 20-point favorites for Friday’s matchup. Although it’s a full ten points less than last year’s game in Champaign, it is still a margin that shows how dominant the Badgers should be.
It could be big enough for some Badgers to become complacent.
That’s why every single Badgers player needs to remember the disappointment from last year. The countless miscues; the back of Illini jerseys as they sprinted into the endzone; the sight of Illinois’ stands clearing out onto the field as Wisconsin’s bid for an undefeated season came to an end in the most unlikely of ways.
The Badgers must remember the pain of last year’s loss in order to guarantee a victory that will put away the doubts cast on the program this year.