The Wisconsin Badgers will face the Illinois State Redbirds in Camp Randall on Saturday at 6 p.m. Here are the strategies each team should employ if they want to begin the 2022 season with a victory.
Illinois State’s Keys to Win
1. Force Badgers to pass
While the Illinois State Redbirds allowed only 3.5 yards per carry, they’re facing a tough matchup in running back Braelon Allen and Co., which is why they should force quarterback Graham Mertz to pass more often.
Mertz has been inconsistent throughout his Badgers career, having thrown for 1,958 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a 59.5% completion rate in 2021.
Now, Mertz will be throwing to a new set of weapons, as top Badger receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, as well as tight end Jake Ferguson, departed for the NFL this season
Mertz could face initial struggles when building chemistry with his new pass catchers and the Redbirds should look to combat the air game as a result, potentially by stacking more players near the line of scrimmage to disincentivize the running game.
2. Linebackers in coverage
The Wisconsin Badgers displayed a dominant presence from their front seven in 2021, ranking first in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) in both rush yards allowed per game and yards per rush, allowing only 64.8 rush yards allowed per game and 2.12 yards per rush.
While key players like Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton return for the Badgers, both inside linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn departed for the NFL, leaving a void at the position for 2022.
The Redbirds should look to attack the newcomers, especially in the passing game, as Wisconsin’s 3-4 scheme places linebackers in coverage on occasion.
The Redbirds struggled through the air in 2021, throwing for just 124.8 yards per game. To ease their offensive deficiencies, Illinois State should target tight end Bryson Deming, their second-leading receiver in 2021, over the middle of the field.
3. Balanced Attack
Last season, the Redbirds struggled offensively in the air, but flourished in the running game behind lead halfback Cole Mueller, who had 188 carries for 977 yards and six touchdowns.
The Redbirds did acquire former Minnesota quarterback Zach Annexstad, who last saw action in 2018 when he threw for 1,277 yards, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 51.9% completion rate.
With Wisconsin’s stellar statistics against the run, the Redbirds will likely struggle should they attempt a ground-dominant offensive approach.
However, Wisconsin has a new-look secondary, with UCLA transfer Jay Shaw and Toledo transfer Justin Clark joining Alexander Smith as the cornerbacks, which could be an area to target early on, given the strength of this Badgers’ defense.
A balanced attack could help sustain more offensive drives for the Redbirds, helping them compete even more in a game in which Wisconsin is heavily favored.
Wisconsin Keys to Win
1. Ground & pound
It’s no secret that the Wisconsin Badgers have a stellar rushing attack led by sophomore Braelon Allen, who rushed 168 times for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns in his age-17 season.
Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo return to the fold after suffering injuries last year, with the former expected to take over as the second option after a 173-carry, 815-yard season in 2021.
The Badgers return top offensive linemen Jack Nelson, who was moved to left tackle, Tyler Beach, who was moved to left guard, and Joe Tippmann, forming a formidable trio that should elevate the running game against all opponents in 2022.
With a strong left side of the offensive line, as well as a multi-faceted rushing attack, the Badgers should look to run the football early and often. Even against a Redbirds team that allowed only 3.5 yards per carry in 2022.
2. Play-action attack
If the Badgers can execute their ground-and-pound rushing attack, it should open up the play-action game for Mertz, which could be vital to his development early in the season.
Mertz has struggled with his accuracy throughout his Badgers career, which is why having easier looks via play action could revitalize the aerial attack, especially as the redshirt junior looks to build chemistry.
The Badgers have operated out of play-action a good amount during the Paul Chryst era, as teams try to stop the run by stacking several players in the “box," allowing for single-coverage across the board, forcing cornerbacks and linebackers to remain disciplined and not bite on the play-fake.
If Wisconsin can establish an offensive identity in the play-action game, they’ll be better set for future weeks, especially when they travel to Ohio State and face the Buckeyes in a highly-anticipated Week 4 matchup.
3. Win in the trenches
The Badgers' offensive line should be a force to reckon with, at least on the left side. However, Wisconsin presents a stout defensive line with returning seniors Keeanu Benton and defensive end Isaiah Mullens.
With strong units across both lines, Wisconsin should look to win on both sides in the trenches in order to be successful on Saturday.
If the Badgers can sustain their performance along the offensive line, they can establish their promising rushing attack.
In theory, that should set the foundation for Graham Mertz to develop consistency with his new receivers in clean pockets, furthering the offense as tougher opponents come down the line.
Defensively, the Badgers should look to not only continue their dominance in defending the run, but also suffocate the Redbirds offense by generating pressure with their 3-4 defensive look, led by outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who had a team-high nine sacks in 2021.