Army's triple-option offense will test the Badgers defense's discipline. How can Wisconsin slow down Army's offense and who should the UW offense lean on?
WHO HAS THE EDGEUpdated
When the Badgers have the ball
A lot of attention will be paid this week to the availability of quarterback Graham Mertz, who is questionable after suffering a chest injury on a sack last week against Michigan. Mertz said he’ll try everything he can to practice and play this week.
If Mertz can’t go, junior Chase Wolf would start for the Badgers against an Illinois defense that has recorded 85 pressures in six games. UW needs more from its offensive line in both pass protection and run blocking. Multiple linemen and Mertz said that the game plan this week features more elements to help the line, but they didn’t divulge what those will look like.
Illinois edge rusher Owen Carney, who has 4½ sacks over his last three games, will challenge UW’s senior tackles to protect the quarterback better than they have early this season.
UW could be down to its third and fourth tight ends because both Jake Ferguson and Jack Eschenbach are questionable.
Don’t be surprised to see more tailbacks getting involved. UW isn’t getting enough from its rushing attack — just more than 100 yards per game against Power Five opponents — and may try to get freshman Braelon Allen more touches because he has the ability to push a pile at 6 foot 2, 238 pounds.
Also look for receiver Chimere Dike to continue getting more looks after making two big catches, including a touchdown, against Michigan.
When the Illini has the ball
Illinois touts one of the most experienced rosters in college football and its offense is littered with players with more than 15 games of experience under their belts. Center Doug Kramer and fellow offensive linemen Verderian Lowe and Alex Palczewski power a unit that resembles what coach Bret Bielema ran at UW in form, but not always in function.
Running back Chase Brown just posted 257 yards rushing against Charlotte, but Illinois, much like the Badgers’ other Power Five opponents this season, uses its run game to set up deep passes. Quarterback Brandon Peters missed time with a shoulder injury this season and he’s only thrown one touchdown in 3½ games.
Illinois protects the ball well, giving away just four turnovers, but it shares a problem with the Badgers’ offense — ineffective play in the red zone. Illinois has scored on 10 of 16 red-zone drives this season; UW has scored on 10 of 15 in two fewer games.
UW’s defense will need to find ways to get into the backfield and bring down Peters after not recording a sack last week. Peters has decent mobility and picked up rushing gains of 30 and 31 yards against the Badgers last season.
UW’s toughest matchup on the outside might be Isaiah Williams. The wide receiver who converted from quarterback is averaging nearly five catches per game and runs a lot of short routes that can be difficult for cornerbacks to combat if they’re not in press coverage.
Both punters could be active in this game, an under-the-radar matchup between two of the best in the Big Ten. UW’s Andy Vujnovich is fourth in the conference with an average try of 47.7 yards. Illinois’ Blake Hayes is averaging 45.8 yards per punt, but 19 of his 38 punts have pinned the opponent inside its 20-yard line and 11 have traveled 50-plus yards, tied for the most in the league.
Neither team has had much return game to speak of, but Illinois’ advantage with kicker James McCourt (11 of 16 on field goals this season) has been diminished by the solid play of UW’s Collin Larsh (6 of 8).
UW is trying to avoid a 1-4 start for the first time since 1990 and going back-to-back season with a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2003-04. UW coach Paul Chryst is 5-1 against Illinois as the Badgers’ coach. The Badgers are 10-point favorites but are 1-3 against the spread this season.
Illinois hasn’t won a Power Five game since its Week 0 upset against Nebraska. Bret Bielema went 37-19 in conference play as UW’s coach, but he was 11-29 in SEC games as the coach at Arkansas. He’s off to a 1-2 start in Big Ten play at Illinois.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERSUpdated
1. Avoid turnovers: This is trite, but it’s worth mentioning until the Badgers actually do it on Saturdays. UW has 12 turnovers this season, an average of three per game, and is facing an Illinois defense that has 10 takeaways (1.7 per game) this season. Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen has two forced fumbles in four games this season and 12 forced fumbles in his career. He’s one away from tying defensive end Simeon Rice’s program record for career fumbles forced. Thirty of the 74 points the UW defense has allowed have come on possessions following a UW turnover.
2. Get Dike involved again: Sophomore receiver Chimere Dike caught his first two targets of last week’s game for a combined 54 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted just one more time — a catch broken up on a nice play by Michigan’s Daxton Hill. UW had myriad issues protecting the quarterback against Michigan, but it could help out the line by using Dike on some shallow crossing routes and getting the ball out fast. Dike is one of the team’s best receivers and has just seven touches in four games. That should change quickly.
3. Change the tone: The Badgers too often have looked like a team that is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then a positive mood never is recovered when a mistake happens or the opponent takes a lead. Junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal spoke this week about the importance of maintaining good body language and a better attitude. Do that this week. Illinois isn’t one of the best teams in college football like the teams the Badgers lost to are.
THREE KEYS FOR THE ILLINIUpdated
1. Feed Williams: Isaiah Williams is a supremely talented player for Illinois, one UW hasn’t seen much of this season. His quickness and agility on the edge allow him to make plays that don’t appear to be there on first glance. UW is strongest in its front and will slow the Illini rushing attack, so getting Williams the ball in the flats and letting him try to create yards after the catch may be the smartest plan of attack.
2. Blitz heavily: Owen Carney Jr. is a handful for the Badgers to deal with as an edge rusher, but Michigan was able to grind the UW offense to a halt with well-timed blitzes last week. The Wolverines blitzed on 10 of 30 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and tallied six sacks. Illinois should consider using its defensive backs as blitzers as well. UW had trouble identifying them and getting them blocked against Michigan.
3. Win the special teams battle: UW’s special teams have hurt the cause over the past two weeks, and Illinois would be wise not to return the favor. While field-goal kicking and punting used to be where the Badgers settled for less than average, they have been executing kickoffs correctly and fielding punts this season. Illinois must not give up possessions or field position with errors on special teams to pull off the mini upset. Remember, Illinois downed a then-undefeated UW team in 2019 with a pressure-packed 39-yard field goal.
Series: UW leads 43-37-7
First meeting: Teams tied 10-10 in 1895
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 at Camp Randall last season
UW's longest winning streak: Nine games (2008, 2011-2018)
UW's longest losing streak: Six games (1987-1992)
UW’s defense should be stout enough not to allow much to the Illini, but it’s hard to expect much from the Badgers with the uncertainty at quarterback for the Badgers. Perhaps this is the week the offensive line and run game get it going and take the pressure off whomever is under center. Both defenses are hunting turnovers, and I think this is the week that UW gets the edge in that category and it decides the game.
Badgers 24, Illinois 14
The fan's pick
The Badgers face a familiar foe this weekend, Bret Bielema and the University of Illinois. Who are you taking?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) October 5, 2021
As featured on
Junior tailback Chez Mellusi bet on himself when he decided to transfer from Clemson to Wisconsin, and he's been a needed voice in a diminishing running backs room.
Whether you are heading down to Camp Randall or watching from the comfort of your couch, the State Journal has Badgers fans covered with a complete breakdown of everything they need to know as Wisconsin takes on Army on Saturday night in Madison.
- Three takeaways from Montana State's game at Weber State
- Jim Polzin: How a players-only meeting helped members of the Badgers' offense trust each other
- Badgers gameday primer: TV, tickets, parking and everything else fans need to know as Wisconsin hosts Army
- How movie buff RB Chez Mellusi is helping rewrite the Badgers' script this season
- ‘Succession’ Returns, New Seasons of ‘Baptiste,’ ‘Hightown,’ ‘Fear,’ No Sweat with Heather Locklear
- Rob Halford's cancer is in remission
- Packers injuries at cornerback could mean Fields day for Bears
- Tigers softball win twice in season-closing double header
- Council okays plans for second eatery at new apartment complex
- Kristen Stewart 'couldn't open her mouth' due to Spencer tension
- Exterior changes approved for Lowell Street Dunkin’
- Baker activates National Guard at Massachusetts schools, prisons
- 11-year assistant Track-and-Field Coach at TMHS: After getting cut from hoop, Davis becomes Hall of Fame Athlete
- For Mason Crosby and Packers’ field goal unit, misses against Bengals were a team effort
- While not agreeing on all COVID protocols (including mask wearing): Students, teachers prefer in-person learning
- This is the Best Public High School in Massachusetts
- Double drive-thru proposed for Winn Street Dunkin’ in Burlington
- Board of Health advises against new facial covering mandate