The first thing that comes to mind with this year's Wisconsin team is the cadre of offensive weapons. And rightfully so. But, for opposing offenses, the Badgers defense is providing just as big a challenge.
Questions this week centered on how the Illinois defense was going to handle the likes of Melvin Gordon, Joel Stave and Jared Abbrederis, but just as big a question mark is how the Illini offense can rebound against one of the conference's best defenses. The Badgers rank second only to nation-best Michigan State in total defense so far this season, allowing just 267.3 yards per game. In scoring defense, Wisconsin has actually been better than the Spartans, allowing a shockingly low 13.2 points per game, the best mark in the Big Ten.
"They're defense is great, at the top in all kinds of defensive categories," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said during the team's weekly media availability Monday. "That's what makes it fun. It makes it fun to go out there versus one of the great defenses and really see what you're all about, and we've got a chance to do that this week."
Scheelhaase is anticipating the challenge, but if both the Illini offense and Wisconsin defense play like they did in their respective previous outings, it won't be any kind of fun for the orange and blue.
Two weeks ago against Nebraska, Illinois struggled, posting just 19 points on 372 yards of offense, only 177 of which came through the air. It was Scheelhaase's worst game of the season, as he passed for just 135 yards, throwing no touchdown passes and one interception. It was a bit of a wake-up call for a team that had been finding so much success on offense up until that point.
"We had the opportunity in that ballgame early to make plays, and we have got to make those plays," coach Tim Beckman said on "BTN Live" on the Big Ten Network on Thursday. "It's not anything extraordinary that we're asking you to do. We're asking you just to make the play; make the throw, make the block, make the catch, hold on to the football, don't fumble it. When you're playing the two teams back-to-back that were in the championship game last year, you've got to make sure that you're doing those things."
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What might be an extraordinary ask, however, is making plays against a Wisconsin defense that dominated Northwestern last week in the Badgers' 35-6 win. Northwestern, a high-quality offense with its own arsenal of playmakers couldn't do anything, not finding the end zone and amassing only 241 yards of offense.
The 4-2 Badgers have allowed no more than 10 points in their victories this season.
"It's a very good defense," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said at his weekly press conference Monday. "They handled themselves well. ... They've been solid. They've been steady. I thought they tackled well in this last game. Their expectations appear to be rising. They're practicing well. So we'll see how good they can be. I don't know, but I hope they can keep playing like that, like they did last week because they were overwhelming against what I still think is a very talented offense."
The task of besting the Badger defense is obviously a tough one, but it's not like the Illini offense has been silent this season. It was one of the conference's best through Illinois' first four games, and though the list of offensive stars for Wisconsin seems to fill an All-Big Ten roster, Illinois has its own playmakers in running back Josh Ferguson, wide receiver Ryan Lankford and the quarterback Scheelhaase.
"Watching film on (Illinois) initially, it's an offense that gives you a lot of looks and causes you some problems with matchups," Andersen said. "Obviously, it's a want to on the offensive staff to try to create mismatches, matchup issues for you pre-snap, and they do a good job with that. Lots of personnel groups. My guess is there's probably five to seven personnel groups as you go through each game and look at it to see different kids on the field, and they have a lot of different offense, very talented quarterback."
"We have to get your playmakers the football," Beckman said Thursday. "I think we've done a good job these first five football games in getting Ferguson, getting Lankford, getting (dynamic freshman backup quarterback Aaron) Bailey in the game and doing things with Bailey. For us to be successful, we've got to make sure that those weapons on offense ... get that ball and help us score as many points as we possibly can."