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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, September 28, 2023

Badgers host well-rounded Illinois team in must-win Week 5 matchup

After a disastrous 52-21 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Wisconsin Badgers look to rebound at home against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Wisconsin Badgers (2-2) will host the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1) Saturday at 11 a.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

Both teams have enjoyed success against non-conference opponents this season, with Illinois’ victories coming in blowouts of Wyoming, Virginia and Chattanooga. Now, they’ll go head-to-head in their first Big Ten West game of 2022. 

Desperate to bounce back from the 52-21 blowout in Columbus, Wisconsin will need a tighter all-around defensive effort, a confidence-restoring performance by Graham Mertz and a more inclusive running attack to topple the Fighting Illini to position themselves for success going forward. 

Illinois offense vs. Wisconsin defense

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito has impressed so far in his fifth college season. The first four games were at Syracuse, where he accumulated 3,866 yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 26 games. 

After transferring into the Big Ten for his senior campaign, DeVito has passed for 954 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s managed multiple touchdown passes in each of the first four games while throwing just two total interceptions. 

DeVito is fresh off the best game of his career: a 332-yard, three-touchdown performance against Chattanooga in which he completed 75% of his attempts. 

He will frequently target wide receiver Isaiah Williams this Saturday. The 5’10” sophomore’s 28 catches lead Illinois by a wide margin, and his 260 yards are also a team-best. Highlighting Williams’ nine-catch, 108-yard Week 4 performance was a 63-yard touchdown. He caught a three-yard pass, beat three defenders to the edge and — with his speed — made an easy dash to the end zone. 

Illinois Receivers Pat Bryant and Brian Hightower have 259 and 120 yards on the season, respectively. Additionally, DeVito has made multiple connections with 10 other targets, so he’ll be looking for other options if Wisconsin manages to stifle the top pass catchers. 

While DeVito isn’t C.J. Stroud, neither are his receivers, Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming or Cade Stover. The Badger defensive backs have a tough matchup ahead of themselves. 

Jim Leonhard’s defensive unit struggled at times against Illinois State and Washington State before looking inept against Ohio State, so it’s up to the Badgers to finally prove their worth against a respectable passing attack. 

Wisconsin’s cornerbacks gave the Buckeye receivers tons of separation and, as a result, yielded numerous big plays last Saturday. Safety John Torchio blew a coverage to pursue Stroud near the goal line and allowed Cade Stover a wide-open touchdown. The group should be less focused on deep passes and quarterback mobility this week and stick more closely to Illinois’ receivers.

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The Fighting Illini have also displayed an effective running attack. Led by running back Chase Brown (95 carries, 604 yards, three touchdowns), they’ve managed a whopping 210 ground yards per game. 

Brown should be eager to face a Badger run defense coming off of Wisconsin’s most abysmal performance in recent memory. Wisconsin allowed Buckeye running backs Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson to combine for two scores and 222 yards on 32 carries — an extraordinary 6.9 yards per attempt. 

After being outclassed up front by a predictably stellar Ohio State offensive line, the Badgers will look to return to form this week and hold Illinois to a pedestrian output on the ground. 

Ahead of Wisconsin’s match up with Ohio State, pass rush an area in need of serious improvement, and the Badgers proceeded to not record a quarterback hurry Saturday night — let alone a sack. 

Perhaps the less intimidating matchup will allow for more creative blitzes and increased pressure this week, but it’s become clear that linebacker Nick Herbig and nose tackle Keeanu Benton are mostly on their own in pursuit of opposing passers. 

Wisconsin offense vs. Illinois defense

How Mertz would hold up in a hostile road environment was a key question heading into last week’s game. He wasted no time answering it with an ugly, unforced interception on his first throw. Finishing 11-of-20 for 94 yards, a touchdown and the interception, Mertz struggled like his pre-2022 self. 

Illinois has held opponents to 147 passing yards per game while intercepting six total passes. The only quarterback to throw for substantial yardage against them was Indiana’s Connor Bazelak (330 yards, one touchdown), albeit with a poor 54 percent completion rate and 6.3 yards per attempt. 

Defensive backs Jartavius Martin and Devon Witherspoon both have six passes defensed and an interception. Kendall Smith has two interceptions. All could add to those statistics if Mertz repeats his sloppy effort from a week ago. 

Skylar Bell has been the Badgers’ best receiver for two consecutive weeks. He hauled in four catches for 55 yards against Ohio State and likely would’ve had more if not for a perfectly timed second-quarter pass breakup on a downfield target. Expect Mertz to continue targeting Bell frequently as the season progresses. 

Losing tight end Clay Cundiff to a leg injury will hurt Wisconsin’s offense. The junior, who suffered the same injury last season, caught nine passes for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns, serving as a reliable target in the middle of the field. Third-stringer Jack Eschenbach (two catches, 33 yards) will need to play a more prominent role going forward, as Hayden Rucci primarily serves as a blocking tight end.

The Fighting Illini are staunch against the run, having allowed fewer than 100 yards in three straight games while holding opponents to 1.9 yards per carry. 

Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton enters Saturday with 21 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. Linemate Keith Randolph Jr. also has 21 tackles along with a sack and an interception. 

Wisconsin will surely run the ball frequently against Illinois, but it’d be wise to do so by committee. In Columbus, Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo combined for six carries and eight yards, forcing Braelon Allen to handle the ball 23 times. 

Although Allen had success with 165 yards and a 75-yard, garbage-time score, as well as three short receptions, it’s unsustainable for him to carry such a heavy load. Mellusi and Guerendo are capable backs, even if significantly less talented than Allen. They need to see more action going forward and offer Allen a bit more rest. 

A healthy offensive line would obviously help all aspects of Wisconsin’s offense after starting tackles Jack Nelson and Riley Mahlman both missed the Ohio State game. While neither was on the preliminary Week 5 injury report, their statuses remain in question and will be critical to monitor as Saturday approaches. 

What are the Badgers playing for?

The catastrophe in Columbus confirmed Wisconsin is nowhere close to competing with college football’s top programs. That said, the Badgers can still salvage a respectable 2022 season and, if they turn their season around like they did a year ago, compete for a Big Ten West title. 

Doing so starts with taking care of Illinois. Wisconsin should be fired up after last Saturday’s primetime embarrassment, and returning to Camp Randall Stadium should provide a boost. 

Enjoying an impressive start to 2022 and playing an all-around improved brand of football, the Fighting Illini will give Wisconsin a competitive game this Saturday — even if the home team prevails by a score or two.

The Daily Cardinal will be back with live Twitter updates during the 11 a.m. contest, so be sure to follow @cardinal_sports if you haven’t already. Be on the lookout for additional gameday coverage, too. 

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