The Fighting Illini needed a bye week to get over their trouncing in Lincoln two weeks ago. But after receiving a beatdown from the Huskers, the next test is going to be more of the same.
That's not to say that when the Badgers visit Champaign on Saturday night it'll be another 20-point loss for Illinois. But the Illini will be facing a dominant squad on the offensive side of the ball. Just like they saw from the Huskers, Wisconsin brings a prolific run game, a physical offensive line and a more-than-capable quarterback. Hopefully this time the Illinois defense will be a bit more ready.
"Very similar," coach Tim Beckman said at his weekly press conference Monday. "Offensive line-wise, you look at Nebraska's offensive line compared to Wisconsin, big, extremely big, and physical. ... Our players understood that they were a little bit manhandled in Lincoln. It's moving them around, getting them in the right position. Making tackles in the open field was another glaring issue that we had against Nebraska. Those things you continue to work on like you do every day, the fundamentals of football, and you try to get better, put your players in those situations so they can become better. But that's Big Ten football. There are a lot of teams, offensively, that are going to try to run the power and run the football to establish their offense."
There are a lot of powerful run games in the Big Ten, but Wisconsin's has been the best so far this season. The Badgers lead the conference in rushing, with 298.2 yards per game, as well as total offense, with the team racking up 519.5 yards of offense each week. Running back Melvin Gordon leads all Big Ten ball-carriers with 145 yards on the ground per game, and second back James White ranks fourth with 95.7 yards per game.
The task of stopping Gordon and White falls to a defense that was torched two weeks prior by Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, who tore up the Illini for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Huskers, the Illini were burned for 335 rushing yards.
After those running backs, though, there's still a threatening offense led by quarterback Joel Stave. He might be without top weapon Jared Abbrederis, who was hurt against Northwestern last week, but he still has the ability to pick up yardage and points on those rare occasions when the running game isn't performing up to its usual high standards.
"That's how they get the offense going, with the running game. He's definitely a guy that can keep the chains moving with his accuracy," Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown said of Stave. "He is an underrated passer. I've seen him stand tall in the pocket and throw the ball, so it's definitely something we've got to be aware of, as well."
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And, according to Beckman, there aren't any reinforcements coming for this young Illini defense.
"With the youth and the players that are playing for us, you're going to go through some growing pains," Beckman said. "It's not been about effort. It's not been about lack of assignments or missed assignments. It's been more about just making the play. And right now with the depth that we have and the players that we have, we're building this defense, especially, for the future, and the best way that we know how is to give them reps because they're going to have to play. Yes, there is a little bit of a depth issue there, there's no question about that. But putting these players in and letting them experience that ... you have to put those players in those positions because that's who we have now and that's who we have to believe in."
So the Illini had the bye week to prepare for this big-time offense. The question is, does that make them feel better heading into the game?
"You never feel better until you get another win, but I'm pleased in terms of our preparation," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "I thinks are kids understand what's expected and what we're going to see. It's obviously going out and executing and getting it done."