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October 5, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Illinois



Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. This week the Badgers return home to Camp Randall Stadium, where they'll host Illinois in their Big Ten home opener. Both teams are looking for a win in conference play, and the Badgers need a win to keep their hopes for another Big Ten title alive.

All Out Blitz: Illinois

What you need to know about Illinois

Head coach: Tim Beckman (1st season @ Illinois), 2-3 (0-1 Big Ten)
Nebraska All-Time Record: 577-536-49 (.518)
2012 Record: 2-3 (0-1 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 37-35-7

Did you read this?

Know Thy Foe: Illinois

Last year

I think the "tale of two seasons" analogy gets thrown around a lot in college football these days, but it's especially appropriate for Ron Zook's final year at Illinois. The Illini started off well - actually, it was their best start in Zook's tenure. The Illini opened up their season by sweeping their non-conference games, including a win over then-No. 22 Arizona State. The start of Big Ten play went pretty well too. The Illini beat Northwestern and Indiana in back-to-back weeks, and they peaked in the rankings at No. 16 with a 6-0 record. At the time it looked like the Illini had saved Zook's job, and could very well challenge the Badgers for the Leaders division title.

But then the other shoe dropped. The Illini fell 17-7 at home to an unranked Ohio State team, when Buckeyes quarterback completed just one of four passes in the game. The Illini then lost consecutive road games to Purdue and Penn State, and couldn't close out games against Michigan and Wisconsin. The Ron Zook era came to a close when the Illini lost 27-7 in Minneapolis to a 3-9 Minnesota team, and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning took over as interim head coach for a 20-14 bowl win over UCLA. The Illini had the biggest second half collapses in college football history, becoming the first team to win their first six games and lose the next six.

Season outlook

Illinois Tim Beckman away from Toledo as their new head coach during the offseason, and expectations fairly reasonable for a first year head coach. Zook may not have been a great head coach for the Illini, but he recruited well and left behind a cupboard of talent that was far from bare. The Illini returned 14 starters from last years' team, including starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The schedule looked tough but manageable, considering the kind of experience Beckman inherited. Road games at Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State dot the schedule, giving the Illini an outside shot at competing for the Leaders division title if they could score a few upsets. It looked like Beckman was coming into a pretty good situation, and another bowl game looked like a good place to start for the Illini.

This year

The problem is, things haven't started out so well for Beckman and the Illini. They're 2-3 on the season, which is far from where they expected and wanted to be at this juncture. The season started well enough with a 24-7 win over Western Michigan, but Beckman's teams seem to have an unfortunate tendency to get blown out of games every now and then. Their three losses have come by an average of 29 points, which is particularly problematic since Beckman is a defensive-oriented coach. He's not calling his own plays at Illinois, but blowouts were a problem for Beckman at Toledo too. His defenses gave up averages of 37, 28, and 31 points per game during his three seasons at Toledo. The Illini are giving up 23 points per game, but that mark rises to about 34 points per game against FBS teams.

Illinois' offense has been underwhelming as well. The Illini are 91st in the nation in rushing and 75th in passing offense this season, which usually isn't going to get it done in the Big Ten. Part of the problem is Scheelhaase has been hurt- the junior has missed parts of three games this season thanks to an ankle injury. And when he's on the field, the results haven't been great. Scheelhaase is completing over 60 percent of his passes this season, but he's thrown four interceptions to just two touchdowns. Reilly O'Toole played well in Scheelhaase's place, but the Illini have definitely missed the dual-threat aspect he can bring to the table.

Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson form a nice tandem in the backfield, and the pair has rushed for 392 yards on the season and two touchdowns. Donnovann is the bigger back and has gotten a few more touches than Ferguson, but they both average about ten carries per game in Beckman's spread offense. The running game might not be the focal point of the offense, but the Illini have two nice weapons at their disposal.

The real action in Illinois' offense comes through the air. Donnovann and Ferguson both get involved here a bit as well, but Ryan Lankford has been the primary target for this season. Lankford had just 12 catches for 108 yards last season as a sophomore, but he's broken out a bit in his junior year. The 6-foot receiver has 23 catches for 347 yards and four touchdowns so far this season, making him Illinois' go-to guy instead of the departed A.J. Jenkins. Justin Hardee and Spencer Harris have gotten in on the action too, and Harris has added two more touchdowns this season already.

But as I mentioned before, the defense has probably been the most disappointing part of Illinois' season so far. The Illini rank 45th in the nation in sacks with just 10, and it's clear they're missing a big playmaker like Whitney Mercilus from last season. Senior defensive end Michael Buchanan has been good so far - he has 2.5 sacks this season and 4.5 total tackles for loss, but the rest of the defensive line leaves a little to be desired. The Illini also return three of last year's four starters in the defensive backfield, but only strong safety Earnest Thomas has pulled in an interception. The Illini are -4 in turnover margin this season, and the defense will have to force a few more if the offense can't stop turning the ball over.

Matchup to watch: Illinois wide receivers vs. Wisconsin defensive backs

With Illinois running the spread, the Badger secondary will have to be on their toes if they want to keep Beckman's offense in check. Ryan Lankford has been a big problem for defenses so far this season, but it looks like he's Illinois' most consistent big-play guy. Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie have played reasonably well this season, and they're pretty comparable size-wise to Lankford. If Smith or Cromartie can keep him in check, the Badgers can focus on playing to one of their strengths this season: stopping the run. The Badgers had trouble with Nebraska's running game, but Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez are pretty talented players.

The pick: Wisconsin 28 Illinois 14

Both teams need a win to stay alive in the hunt for the Leaders division title, but Illinois played terribly in their only away game this season, and hasn't won in Camp Randall since 2002. The Badgers played a very well in the first half against Nebraska, but the offense fell apart in the second half and the defense could only handle so much of Taylor Martinez.

Illinois' offense is nowhere near as good as Nebraska's so far this season, so I think the Badgers will be able to contain Scheelhaase and their spread attack. The Badgers are also looking to incorporate James White and Melvin Gordon in to the game plan a little bit more, and I think they'll help take some of the load off of Montee Ball in the ground game. If they can work the play-action passing game against Illinois like they did against Nebraska, the Badgers should be in good shape to even up their Big Ten record.

The point after:

Despite sharing a border, Wisconsin and Illinois don't have many players from the opposing state on their rosters. Illinois has a grand total of zero Wisconsinites on their roster, while the Badgers have just eight players from Illinois.

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


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