Illinois Fighting Illini
1. Establish the passing attack
The Fighting Illini are off to a strong 3-1 start to the 2022 season, and a lot of that success can be attributed to senior transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito. The Syracuse transfer completed 68.8% of his passes for 951 yards, nine touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Illini have also shown a penchant for the big play, with three pass catchers averaging over 10 yards per catch. Wisconsin’s secondary did not have its best day against Ohio State last week, as they were carved up by quarterback CJ Stroud for 297 yards and five touchdowns. While the Buckeyes are probably the most potent offense Wisconsin will face this season, they still showed some glaring deficiencies in that area of the field.
The Illini may not have the same talent level as OSU, but they have been strong in the air so far this season, and this might be the best way to keep the Badgers defense on their heels.
2. Get off to a fast start
The Illini haven’t won at Camp Randall Stadium since 2002, and Head Coach Bret Bielema is returning to the place where he experienced great success a decade ago. Illinois will be motivated to break their losing streak and score a critical Big Ten win on the road. If they’re able to get off to a quick start, they will push a Wisconsin squad to the ropes, especially since they are coming off a punishing loss last week.
If the Illini put points on the board early, they will put the Badgers offense under duress and force quarterback Graham Mertz to reel Wisconsin back into the game. The Badgers will be looking to capture the early momentum and put last week’s loss in the rear view. However, if they fall behind early, the Ohio State loss may continue to linger as the season moves along.
3. Contain Braelon Allen and force Graham Mertz to make big plays
Braelon Allen is undoubtedly one of the best running backs in the country, so completely stopping him seems unlikely for Illinois. While the Illini have been quite effective on run defense so far this year, as they’ve only allowed 87 rushing yards per game, they have not faced a running back quite like Braelon Allen.
However, if they are able to contain Allen by crowding the box, that will force Mertz to make plays. Mertz has been solid this season with a quality 7/3 touchdown to interception ratio, but Wisconsin’s offense operates best when the running game has been established and play action becomes an option.
When the Badgers got behind early against Ohio State last week and were forced to throw, Mertz wasn’t at his best. He finished the game going 11/20 with only 94 yards. Illinois can put pressure on the Badgers if they contain Allen and force Mertz to play from behind.
- Get the ground game going
On an opposite note from the final key for Illinois, if the Badgers want to be successful this season, their offense needs a dynamic rushing attack.
No one is doubting Allen’s superior talent, as he is averaging nearly seven yards a carry in addition to six touchdowns. However, in the only competitive game the Badgers had so far this season, Allen was contained relatively well against Washington State. He managed a modest 4.7 yards per carry.
Wisconsin needs to commit to establishing the run on Saturday in order to open up passing lanes for Mertz and tire out the Illinois defense. Wisconsin was at its best last year when Allen and fellow backfield partner Chez Mellusi were tallying double digit carries, controlling the clock and making life easy for Mertz. Additionally, Allen got some looks in the wildcat formation against Ohio State, which is another way to open up the offense.
2. Limit penalties and turnovers
The Badgers took part in three blowouts and only one close contest this season.
The one nail biting affair, the 17-14 loss to Washington State, could be defined in part by UW’s backbreaking penalties and untimely turnovers. In that game, the Badgers had 11 penalties, costing them 106 yards while also committing three turnovers. These mistakes prevented Wisconsin from winning a game in which they outgained WSU by 150 yards, dominated time of possession and doubled the Cougars in first downs.
Illinois is a quality conference opponent, and Wisconsin cannot lose precious yards or field position on costly mistakes. If Wisconsin is guilty of double digit penalties again, or if they have multiple turnovers, it will once again make the defense’s job difficult. They must play a clean and disciplined game in order to ensure a win on Saturday.
3. Win the special teams battle
The aspect of football most overlooked by fans, special teams, is actually something that can win or lose a game for a team. In the aforementioned game against Washington State, the Badgers also cost themselves that game with poor special teams play. Wisconsin had two missed field goals and allowed a damaging 73 yard return on a kickoff.
In a potentially tight affair like this one, the Badgers left six points off the board and then set up Washington State for an easy field goal attempt. The margin in that game was three points. Wisconsin can’t leave points on the board, nor can they set the Illini up with short fields.
If the Badgers convert on their field goals and give the defense a lot of the field to work with, they will have a much easier time defending home turf and sending the Illini back to Champaign with another Camp Randall loss.