The Wisconsin Badgers come into homecoming week looking to get back on track in what has been a somewhat disappointing season up to this point. With two losses now on the ledger, any College Football Playoff chances have passed, and any New Year’s Six bowl is probably gone as well. Frustrating for sure, but one way to take out your frustration is getting back home and dismantling an inferior football team. Hello, Illinois.
The Badgers have a leg up in the Big Ten West with their win over Iowa, but they will have to take care of business in these next three games to keep that hold. It starts with Illinois, whom Wisconsin has beaten up on for the last decade. Over the last 10 games, the Badgers are 9–1 against the Fighting Illini. This weekend, both teams come in off embarrassing losses looking to right the course. What do the Badgers need to do to make sure it’s them who get back on track?
Get Back to Basics
Wisconsin has faced two of the nation’s top five rushing defenses so far this season in Iowa and Michigan. Thankfully, the Badgers won’t have to face a unit anywhere near that level this week—Illinois ranks 106th in defending the run. That spells trouble for Lovie Smith and company when going against the nation’s second leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor. While everyone and their mother knows who Taylor is and what he brings, Illinois is one Big Ten opponent who hasn’t seen a lot of him, as he was limited in their contest last year due to injury.
The Illini should get a full dose of the nation’s top back this time around. With Illinois being horrible against the run, the Badgers should be licking their chops to really pound the football and spark some big runs. I think everyone is ready to see Taylor bust a few big plays and get the ground game going again. This is the worst front seven they’ve faced year to date statistically, so it should be a good opportunity to get things figured out for Wisconsin. Hey, maybe they’ll feed their dual-threat tackle again this year?
Slow Down the Run
The Illinois offense is entirely predicated on success in the run game. As it stands currently, the Fighting Illini have the nation’s No. 22nd rushing offense, a major positive for Illinois in 2018. They have an underrated two prong attack in Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein, and the offense rises or falls on those two. When they run the ball well, Illinois can score. When they’re shut down, they can’t, as Illinois ranks 116th in passing offense. It’s been a tale of two sides on the offensive side of the football.
Thankfully for Wisconsin, the front seven is much healthier than the secondary despite missing Isaiahh Loudermilk. The Badgers have five secondary players on the injury report, but fortunately for them, Illinois has been unable to throw the football. In order to really shut the Illini down, look for Wisconsin to focus heavily on defending the run game. If the Badgers are able to slow it down, it will pit weakness against weakness between the Illinois pass offense and the Wisconsin pass defense. While Wisconsin has struggled through the air, I trust the young guys to step up against a bad passing attack.
Instill Some Confidence
Normally, I try to make my third key some sort of stadium environment point, and in a way this one is as well. You’re back at home, last week is behind you. While I’d really like to run the ball down their throat, I’d also like to get some confidence back in the offense as a whole. Especially Alex Hornibrook. Look, I know he didn’t play well last week, but the amount of slander against him was some of the worst ’ve ever seen. If the coaching staff didn’t believe that he was the best option available, he wouldn’t be out there. If you want to turn this thing around and salvage maybe a 10-win season, you need Alex Hornibrook. I’d love for the Badgers to get him some throws and allow him to make some plays. With a tough road game again next week in Northwestern, you want to have all guys feeling confident in their abilities.
Going off that, I’d also like to see Wisconsin push the envelope a bit. Last week’s punt in Michigan territory was bad. Plain and simple. If they have these opportunities, they need to take advantage of them and see what they can make happen. If you do that, you’re giving confidence to your offense as a whole. With the season not panning out the way they wanted so far, you need that going forward, as there is a lot of football left.