The Wisconsin Badgers (4-2) will look to avenge last week’s loss against Iowa when they travel to Champagne, Illinois to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-4) Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Wisconsin, now 2-1 in conference play, fell to Iowa in a 15-6 game at home last week. In the loss, the Badgers failed to score a touchdown for the first time since the 2020 season and continued their troubling trend of losing high-profile games. To make matters worse, the Badgers lost starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai for the foreseeable future after he left the game in the first half with a broken throwing hand.
It is essential for the Badgers to bounce back against Illinois. With third-ranked Ohio State looming on the schedule, a loss to the Fighting Illini could turn Wisconsin’s previously promising season into a bonafide disaster.
Illinois, led by former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, is coming off their most impressive game of the season: a 27-24 win at Maryland. With momentum on their side, the Fighting Illini hope to take advantage of a reeling Wisconsin team. Illinois’ 34-10 win at Wisconsin last year led to the firing of longtime Badgers head coach Paul Chryst, and the Fighting Illini are looking to beat the rival Badgers for the second time in a row for the first time since 2002.
In order to avoid being embarrassed at home in primetime against Ohio State next week, Wisconsin must first clean up its play against Illinois on Saturday. The most obvious area to improve comes on offense.
Wisconsin’s once highly anticipated offense reached borderline crisis mode against Iowa. The Badgers amassed just 104 rushing yards, turned the ball over twice and converted on only two of 17 third down opportunities, racking up two measly field goals in the process. Wisconsin’s offensive performance last week was embarrassing, and it is crucial for them to find their footing against Illinois.
With Mordecai injured, freshman quarterback Braedyn Locke will start his first collegiate game Saturday. A transfer from Mississippi State, Locke completed 15-30 passes with one interception, a fumble and no touchdowns against Iowa after replacing Mordecai.
While Locke may be inexperienced, coaches and players expressed their confidence in his ability and leadership.
“There’s nobody that’s here more, that spends more time in here in the office and breaking down and watching film and learning and studying,” Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell told reporters.
“I’ve seen how Braedyn practices, I’ve seen how he trains,” wide receiver Will Pauling said. “So I don’t have any worries about Braedyn or how he’s going to perform.”
Facing Illinois’ defense, ranked worst in the Big Ten, Locke will get a chance to confirm his team’s belief in him.
However, Wisconsin’s running game will also have to play their part if the Badgers are going to find success Saturday. Already facing a heavier load with fellow running back Chez Mellusi injured, star Braelon Allen is expected to be relied upon more with an inexperienced quarterback now thrust into action. Allen struggled against Iowa, carrying the ball 18 times for 87 yards. To get the offense going, Allen must provide his usual spark.
Backup running back Jackson Acker only received three carries against Iowa. But with Wisconsin expected to ease the pressure on Locke, Acker’s role will most likely increase on Saturday.
As for Wisconsin’s defense, they will be put to the test against Illinois’ dual-threat quarterback, Luke Altmyer. Altmyer has thrown for eight touchdown passes and 1,571 yards, and he leads the Fighting Illini in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns. Facing a running quarterback will be a challenge for Wisconsin’s defense.
Illinois has struggled offensively this season, scoring only 20.3 points per game, good for 119th out of 133 FBS teams. Altmyer has thrown nine interceptions this season, and the Badgers will certainly look to take advantage of this glaring weakness.
Wisconsin’s defense is the strength of the team, and they should handle the Illinois offense as long as they stick to their basic principles.
After last week’s loss, Wisconsin was left with a bad taste in their mouth. And with the way last year’s Illinois game went down, the Badgers will come to Champagne with a vengeance. If Wisconsin is playing to their ability, they should be able to handle Illinois with ease. With the Ohio State game coming up, Saturday presents an opportunity to get the Badgers’ season back on the right track.