THREE BIG STORYLINES
Holding fast at QBSave for a change of heart from the coaching staff this week during practice, Illinois will still start Brandon Peters at quarterback Saturday against Wisconsin. The sixth-year veteran is mired in an inefficient streak that dates back to the end of the 2020 season. It’s been mostly downhill since he completed 18 of 25 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown in Illinois’ 41-23 win at Nebraska nearly 11 months ago. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said he still feels good about what Peters is doing.
“I know he’s going to start clicking on more of those (passes),” Petersen said. “He also had some really good plays out there (against Charlotte). The (touchdown to Daniel Barker) out there that he smoked in the end zone, I mean, I keep telling him those are the kind of throws — getting on your front foot and driving it. He’s going to flip the corner on a couple of these big ones soon.”
Up close lookIllinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters started the season calling plays from the press box. It was a first in his career as a coordinator. It also didn’t last long. Walters moved back to the sideline three weeks ago. The Illini defense has also shown steady improvement in those three weeks. Some personnel and scheme changes are probably most responsible for that growth, but Walters said he does feel “the pulse” of his defense more on the sideline with most of his staff, as outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane remains in the box.
“What’s been awesome is when there is a problem that has (arisen), the speed with which we get it corrected and communicated with the players is better than anywhere I’ve been,” Walters said. “In between series, we’re fixing a lot of things, and I think that’s why we’ve sort of played better even into the second half of games.”
Not going grayOwen Carney Jr. can now add model to his résumé next to outside linebacker/defensive end. Illinois used the fifth-year senior and team captain as its model ahead of Saturday’s homecoming game to show off a new uniform look this season. Carney made stops at the Alma Mater, on the Quad and in front of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center wearing the team’s new orange helmet and a blue jersey and pants. The “Gray Ghost” look for homecoming is out. Probably forever if Bret Bielema has anything to say about it.
“I obviously have a tremendous amount of respect for who (Red Grange) is and what he stood for and what he represents, but I would say one thing I’ve carried forward in every game this year is the orange helmet,” the Illinois coach said. “I think in today’s world, the ability to identify an identity with a football team is very important. That’s why our orange helmets have been a constant and will be a constant for us moving forward.”
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Illinois run game vs. Wisconsin run defenseThe last two weeks have given the Illini a serious boost in their ground game thanks to a 24-carry, 156-yard performance from Joshua McCray at Purdue and a 26-carry, 257-yard game from Chase Brown in last Saturday’s win against Charlotte. Illinois now ranks in the middle of the Big Ten at 173.8 rushing yards per game. Repeating those performances against Wisconsin will be tricky. The Badgers might be 1-3 on the year, but it’s not because of their run defense. Teams are averaging just 45.3 yards — and only 1.6 yards per carry — against Wisconsin. Needless to say, both statistics rank first in the country.
Illinois defense vs. Wisconsin quarterback Graham MertzIt might be a bit of subterfuge out of Madison, Wis., but Wisconsin coach Paul Chyrst told reporters Thursday that he anticipated to have Mertz back for Saturday’s game after he was injured last week against Michigan. On one hand, Mertz had the best game of his career against Illinois in 2020, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. On the other, he’s not come anywhere close to repeating that since. The Illini got little pressure on Mertz in 2020, and he had all the time he needed to complete passes. This current Illinois defense has 11 tackles for loss and six sacks in the last three games.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
Effectiveness in the red zone is a fair barometer of a team’s success. It’s a fairly simple concept. The more times a team can score after getting deep into its opponents’ territory, the better — and vice versa for a team’s defense. Red zone stops can be disheartening. The 2-4 Illini are faring better with the latter. Illinois’ opponents score 80 percent of the time they reach the red zone, which puts the Illini in the middle of the pack nationally tied for 52nd. Offensively, however, Illinois is converting on 62.5 percent of its red zone scoring opportunities. Six touchdowns and four field goals in 16 chances has the Illini tied for 126th out of 130 FBS teams.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
... Brandon Peters catches up with the rest of his team. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Illini defense has shown steady improvement the last three weeks, and the run game has blossomed with Chase Brown and Josh McCray. At some point, Illinois has to put a complementary passing offense on the field. Peters has completed just 34 of 71 passes (47.9 percent) for 363 yards, one touchdown and one interception since his return from a left shoulder injury. Actually hitting some plays in the vertical passing game will only help Illinois’ true strength on the ground.
WISCONSIN WILL WIN IF …
... it can put anything resembling a competent offense on the field. The Badgers have hung their rather impressive defense out to dry save for their Week 2 win against Eastern Michigan. Wisconsin scored 34 points in that game. The rest of the season? Try 10 points in the home loss to Penn State, then 13 against Notre Dame at Soldier Field and 17 last week at home against Michigan. All three were (and still are) ranked teams, but four total touchdowns in those three games clearly didn’t get the job done.
Wisconsin 17, Illinois 14Smash the under. The line has grown steadily this week to the point Wisconsin is an 11-point favorite heading into Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium. The over/under is still set at 42 points. As a point of reference, the over/under for the Ohio State-Maryland game is 71. The odds makers aren’t expecting much offense from the Illini or Badgers, and they still might be overreaching on what the two teams can pull off offensively. The game should be close and competitive. Exciting? Maybe not so much unless you really get hyped about defensive stops and punting. (N-G prediction record: 6-0).
Source : https://www.news-gazette.com/sports/game-day-preview-wisconsin-at-illinois/article_dbc36068-4c24-53a5-ae2b-8b1e70df70ca.html1179