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October 18, 2013

All-Out Blitz: Illinois





Welcome to BadgerBlitz.com's "All-Out Blitz,", where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) are on the road this week after a convincing win over Northwestern. They'll take on the Illinois Fighting Illini in Champaign, Ill., for the first time since 2011. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff, and is scheduled to air on the Big Ten Network.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about Illinois:

Head coach: Tim Beckman (2nd season @ Illinois), 5-12 (0-9 Big Ten)
Northwestern All-Time Record: 577-536-49 (.518)
2013 Record: 3-2 (0-1 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 36-36-7
Record against Wisconsin in Champaign: 20-15-3

Season outlook

Tim Beckman's career at Illinois got off to a rocky start. The Illini scraped two wins against a weak schedule, and lost every other game by an average score of about 36 to 13. The Illini still had four players drafted into the NFL after the season, which among other factors suggests that the Illini didn't do a lot with the talent they had on their roster. You can attribute that to the natural struggles that come along with a new coaching staff, but I still think it's troubling that for a former defensive coordinator Beckman's teams haven't been very stout on defense. The Illini return eight offensive starters and four on defense, and to their credit they've already topped last season's win total. They still need three more wins if they want to make a bowl game, which at this point seems like a stretch to me.

This year

Offense hasn't been a problem for the Illini so far this season. The Illini have thrived under new offensive coordinator Tim Beck, and run a multiple set offense that emphasizes the pass when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is under center. Scheelhaase is currently in the midst of his best season as a starter for the Illini: he's completing a career-high 64.2 percent of his passes, in addition to career highs in yards per attempt and passer rating.

As a result of Beck's emphasis on the pass Scheelhaase has tucked the ball and scrambled out of the pocket less often than in his first three seasons as a starter. Scheelhaase averaged about 13 carries per game between his freshman and junior seasons at Illinois, whereas this season he's running the ball just eight times per game. The scramble is still a weapon for him, but the Illini are using it less often to try and get more big plays through the passing game. Scheelhaase isn't the same type of home-run threat runner like Taylor Martinez or Braxton Miller are, so look for the Badgers to try and slow down the pass to the point where Scheelhaase is forced to take the ball himself for shorter gains.

In their traditional running game the Illini lean on junior running back Donovonn Young and sophomore Josh Ferguson. Young leads the team with 61 rushing attempts through five games (as a frame of reference Melvin Gordon has 90 carries through six games.) Young has already matched last season's rushing touchdown total with three so far this season, but he's more of a grinder than a home run threat.

Ferguson is the other name current Wisconsin wide receivers coach and former Illini offensive coordinator Chris Beatty mentioned as a player to watch apart from the quarterback, and it isn't hard to see why: Ferguson is an all-purpose player who gets involved in both the running game and the passing game. He leads the team in yards from scrimmage after rushing the ball 49 times and catching it 20 times so far this season. Versatile players like Ferguson can be hard to cover since they do a couple different things well, so the Badgers will have to keep a close eye on him.

As far as the rest of the passing attack goes the Badgers will have to keep an eye on several different players. Seven different Illini have caught touchdown passes so far this season, with four of them catching two or more so far. That versatility allows the Illini to spread the field a little more often, so watch to see if the Badgers choose to keep their speedier defenders on the field more often than not to make sure they can run with the Illini.

Defensively the Illini have the 73rd-best scoring defense in college football this season, which so far is up 21 places from last year's 94th-best ranking. I should point out that if the Illini stay at their current pace they'll tie Beckman's 2010 Toldeo team for the best scoring defense of his career. That seems very out of place to me for a former defensive coordinator, so we'll see if Beckman can keep his team on that pace this season.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin's offensive line vs. Illinois' front seven

The Badgers struggled to get their offense going last season against the Illini, partly because they were still flying by the seat of their pants after Bret Bielema fired Mike Markuson and promoted Bart Miller to offensive line coach. The Badgers eventually got their ground game going and finished the game with two rushing touchdowns and 173 net rushing yards. This year the Badgers can't afford to struggle out of the gate on the road, so check and see which line is winning the trench war early in the game. If the Badgers are getting a good push I'd expect them to have a good day on the ground against the Illini.

The pick: Wisconsin 34 Illinois 21

Road games are always tricky, so I'm hedging my bet a little here even though I have the Badgers beating the spread with a 13-point win. The Badgers have also lost two* road night games so far this season, but I think if Jared Abbrederis plays and the Badgers get off to a decent start on the ground they'll come away with their first road win of the season. Illinois is last in the Big Ten in defensive yards per carry and yards per attempt, so if the Badgers stay level on offense they should be able to score on the Illini. Their defense will need to keep up their performance against another high-scoring spread offense, but after seeing the way they handled Northwestern I'm more confident that they can hold a team like that in check long enough for the offense to find a rhythm. Again, like last week it wouldn't surprise me if the Badgers beat the spread by a fair amount. Illinois ranks 99th in defensive efficiency in FootballOutsiders.com's F/+ ranking, whereas the Badgers rank 19th in offensive efficiency.

The point after:

Despite Illinois holding a 20-15-3 series lead in Champaign, the Badgers are 6-2 at Illinois since 1993 and have outscored the Illini on average 34-20 during that stretch.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.



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