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10 things to know about Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois and Wisconsin square off in the Illini’s homecoming game. Here are some interesting facts to know about the Badgers and Illini matchup

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It’s Homecoming in Champaign, where they claim to have formally started the tradition almost all colleges participate in these days. However, the Badgers are looking to spoil the Illini’s party and continue an undefeated start to the 2017 season.

While on paper this seems to be a big mismatch, what do the deep stats and tidbits about this series tell us?

Let’s look in to the 10 things to know about the Badgers vs. Illini for this Saturday’s contest.

 

1: Wisconsin is No. 1 in the Big Ten in run defense

This could be a big advantage for the Badgers on Saturday afternoon in Champaign. UW is giving up just 88 yards per game on the ground this season, which tops the Big Ten. Wisconsin is just one of two Big Ten and nine teams nationally giving up fewer than 100 yards per game. Only Alabama, Washington, TCU and Georgia are ahead of the Badgers in run defense so far this season. Meanwhile, Illinois comes in to this game dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 118.7 yards per game.

2: That is the number of quarterbacks Illinois have been using for most of the 2017 season.

For a large part of the season it was Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., but with a youth movement all over the field, last week the Illini took the training wheels off of true freshman quarterback Cam Thomas. After George struggled to start the game, Thomas came on in the hopes of sparking something. That didn’t really happen, as Thomas finished the game just 2 of 4 passing for 33 yards and an interception. He did add 79 yards on 10 carries on the ground, but he’s got to add something in the pass game if Illinois has a shot against the Badgers. However, George did finish last week 18-of-23 for 128 yards and one TD…so maybe the two-quarterback system could work going forward?

3: That is the number of times opponents’ drives that have started inside UW territory have resulted in a touchdown

Wisconsin’s defense has been stellar all season, but perhaps the most impressive part of what the Badgers are doing is their ability to come up big with their backs against the wall. Opponents have started in UW territory 10 times this season, with only three of those possessions ending in touchdowns. Last weekend, Maryland started at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line and got nowhere, settling for a field goal.

4: Illinois ranks 4th in the country in blocked kicks this season

If there’s a way for the Illini to change things up in what appears to be a mismatch on paper, a good way would be getting a turnover or something spectacular on special teams. One area that could be helpful to them is in their kick coverage teams, as they’ve blocked three kicks already this season and the Badgers have had a few blocked on them as well. Only Hawaii (5), Army (4) and Utah State (4) have more blocked kicks on the year. Illinois’ .43 kicks blocked per game rank fourth nationally, and you can bet they know UW has shown weakness in this area already this season.

5: That is the number of receiving touchdowns for UW wide receiver Quintez Cephus this season

After seeing early playing time as a freshman last year, there’s been no sophomore slump for Cephus. Instead, the Badgers have found a go-to wide receiver and a touchdown machine. Cephus leads the Badgers with five touchdowns on the year and ranks tied for fourth in the Big Ten for receiving touchdowns on the year. He’s only two off the lead shared by D.J. Moore of Maryland and Tyler Johnson of Minnesota. Cephus also leads the team with 25 receptions (tied with TE Troy Fumagalli) for 448 yards as well as the five touchdowns.

6: Illinois top running back averages 6.1 yards per carry, but will he play?

While the Illini offense has struggled to get going, one man jumped off the page early and that was true freshman running back Mike Epstein. He leads the team with 346 yards and has three touchdowns on the ground. Epstein has put up those numbers on just 57 attempts in five games played to date. But, he has missed the last two games and there’s been little word on if Epstein will be back in the lineup against the Badgers. If so, look for RaVon Bonner to be the main running back for the Illini.

7: It took just 7 games for UW freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to hit the 1,000-yard mark, tying the true freshman record for fastest to 1,000 yards in a season. 

Just how good has Taylor been? He cracked the 1,000-yard mark before 44 different FBS teams have even hit that mark. Taylor comes in to the Illinois game with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He’s first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, rushing yards and is the only Big Ten rusher in double digits on the TD front. Illinois run defense has been brutal all season, as Lovie Smith’s team ranks dead last in rush defense — giving up just over 210 yards per game to opponents. So, we have a massive advantage for Wisconsin’s run defense and offense. I’m sensing a pattern that may be established in this game.

8: Wisconsin is going for victory No. 8 in a row over the Illini on Saturday

UW currently owns a seven-game win streak in this series, including three straight in Champaign. Wisconsin’s former house of horrors has been kind for the most part recently, as the Badgers have won 5 of the last 6 games in Memorial Stadium as well. Illinois’ longest win streak in the series has been six games, but they led the overall series until the Badgers started this current win streak. Right now the series sits 40-336-7 in favor of the Badgers.

9: Illinois is converting on 90 percent of its red zone opportunities in 2017

That’s an impressive rate on paper, putting the Illini third in the Big Ten in conversion rate on offense. However, the devil is in the details here, as only 10 of the 18 converted possessions have ended in touchdowns and the full six points. Illinois rate of 50 percent for touchdown conversions is 13th in the B1G, while the eight converted field goals puts the Illini second only to Michigan this season. Combine that news with the fact that Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert TD’s inside the red zone at 27.7 percent (tops in the Big Ten), and that’s another not-so-good news scenario for the hosts on homecoming.

10: Wisconsin is 10-1 in true road games under Paul Chryst

The Badgers’ lone loss on the road came against Michigan last season, a 14-10 decision. If you include neutral site games, the Badgers are an impressive 13-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium under Chryst. Illinois is not Michigan in terms of quality to say the least, but it should be worth noting that UW seems to have also played better on the road than at home so far this season as well. So far, the Badgers won 40-6 over BYU and 38-17 over Nebraska, breaking the Huskers’ 20-game night win streak inside Memorial Stadium.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: What we’re watching for

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Kicking off conference play with a bitter rivalry game is one thing. Doing so following a bitter loss in the non-conference finale is another. 

That’s what the Wisconsin Badgers face as they go to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes this Saturday night. 

What could this matchup hinge on? We’re going to be watching for a few key things to tell us how this game is going to go. 

Badgers O-Line vs. Iowa D-Line

It’s true, one could likely put this as a thing to watch every year between these mirror image programs. But, in 2018 and following a loss in which the Badgers offensive line played far below expectations, this is going to be a tell-tale sign of how things are going to go on Saturday night. 

Winning the battle up front is normally a big deal, but in this contest it truly will be be the difference between a win or loss. UW’s O-Line has to show up in a way it really hasn’t so far this season — against the pass rush.

Iowa comes in to this game with 12 sacks as a team, second-most in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s 13. The Hawkeyes starting defensive line has proven to do most of that damage, with end A.J. Epenesa racking up four sacks already. Anthony and Matt Nelson have a sack each and Parker Hesse has two to his name. That’s a total of eight of the 12 sacks Iowa has put up. 

UW’s offensive line has given up six sacks on the season along, which is tied for 10th early on the season. 

You can bet this is going to be a huge point of emphasis for the Badgers offensive line and winning it could mean winning the game. 

Iowa’s Run Game

One of Wisconsin’s strongest points to its defensive success as of late has been its ability to make offenses one-dimensional. Relying on the pass game is something that usually hasn’t ended well for opponents. 

However, early on this year the Badgers defense has had trouble containing the run game of opponents.

New Mexico caught the Badgers off guard with a variation of the option offense in the first half of its Week 2 matchup before settling in and allowing just 77 yards on the ground. Last week saw BYU run consistently against the Badgers defensive group, racking up 191 yards as a team in the win. 

It’s led to Wisconsin ranking just eighth against the run in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to put up 130.6 yards per game on the ground. 

Iowa is looking to establish a run game behind Monona Grove product Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The early results suggest that is a work in progress to say the least. 

So far this year, the Hawkeyes are averaging 173.6 yards per carry. That may seem high, but given the opponents played they rank just 11th in the Big Ten. Young leads Iowa in rushing, but his 234 yards on the ground is only good for 12th individually in the conference. 

Wisconsin can’t let the Iowa’s mediocre run game get going and expect to win. Let’s see if UW can learn from the film Iowa State put up, allowing just 105 yards on the ground in a defensive slug fest two weeks ago. 

Can Hornibrook Break Out?

It seems like this is a weekly wish for Badgers fans, and rightfully so. He’s teased us with greatness at various points in his career, but he’s never been able to harness that greatness on a consistent level. 

Any hopes of that happening in 2018 seem to have diminished already. It’s easy to see why when you compare his numbers last season to this season — they are eerily similar. 

Take a look for yourself: 

Courtesy GoIowaAwesome

Yes, you can point to Hornibrook being unlucky to have one of those two interceptions counting against him, but the numbers are what they are and once again we’re seeing a QB that’s efficient when he has to be, but is far from spectacular more often than not. 

After an opener in which he put up 257 yards, Hornibrook hasn’t topped the 200-yard mark in either of the next two games. Sure, he wasn’t counted on much (just 11 attempts) against New Mexico, but he went just 18 of 28 and averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt with 190 yards and no touchdowns against BYU last weekend.

If that doesn’t sound like inconsistent football, I don’t know what will from a quarterback. 

If ever there was a game for the junior to get back to that level he showed us in the Orange Bowl, this would be a perfect time to do it. 

We’ll keep hope alive for a bit longer, but at some point we’ve got to see him turning the corner to believe this team can get to the level needed to compete nationally. 

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: 5 Things to Know

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How do you get over a heartbreaking defeat? The Wisconsin Badgers will find out quickly, as they turn around from a loss to BYU last week with a game against rival Iowa on Saturday night. 

The now annual battle for the Heartland Trophy has a lot of attention on it, and rightfully so. Could the winner be the frontrunner for the Big Ten West division?

While we won’t know the answer to that for a few weeks, there are some key facts to know about these teams and this game. So, let’s look at five things you should know heading in to the battle for the Heartland Trophy (and Wisconsin’s continued dominance in the battle for the Rusty Toolbox). 

5: A win on Saturday would make Wisconsin the 5th team in Big Ten history to reach 700 wins as a program. 

Despite decades of bad football, the Badgers program is on the verge of history. The program currently sits at 699-491-53 overall in its history. Wisconsin would join the ranks of the 700-win club with the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State and would become just the third long-term member of the Big Ten to make it to that milestone. What better way to reach win No. 700 than to do it against a rival like Iowa? 

4: Iowa is looking for a 4-0 start for the fifth time in the Kirk Ferentz era

Good starts to the season generally mean good finishes. Case in point the Kirk Ferentz era for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa has previously started 4-0 in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2015. In three of those four previous seasons they’ve won at least 10 games. The lone outlier is the 2006 season, in which they started 4-0 and limped to the finish line with a 6-7 overall record and a 2-6 record in Big Ten play. 

What does that tell us? It tells us that either Iowa wins and goes on to dominate the West division…or it losses and won’t be able to catch the Badgers. Either way, this shows just how important this game is to the future of both programs in 2018. 

3: Wisconsin is going for its third-straight win the series with Iowa. 

The Badgers are owners of back-to-back wins in this series, taking a 17-9 decision in 2016 and a 38-14 win at Camp Randall last season. UW has also won five of the last six games, including a three-game win streak (2010, 2014, 2015) in the series. In fact, since the East-West division split for the Big Ten, the Badgers-Hawkeyes series 

2: Iowa is second in the nation in total and scoring defense.

Whatever you make of Iowa’s schedule heading in to conference play, the fact of the matter is that the Hawkeyes have been impressive on defense so far this season. They are allowing just 209 yards per game and an average of 8.0 points per game. Of course, it’s also been nice to play all three games in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, but the Badgers offense is going to be tested much like it was last week against BYU if you look at the stat sheet. 

1: That is the number of losses in true road games for Wisconsin under Paul Chryst.

Playing on the road in the Big Ten is supposed to be really hard, but for the Paul Chryst-led Badgers it has been easier than it is supposed to be. UW is 14-1 in true road games in the four years Chryst has been at the helm of the program, and own a 9-game road winning streak. That win streak is second longest active road win steak in the country, trailing only Oklahoma’s 17-game win streak. 

Wisconsin’s lone loss on the road in Chryst’s tenure was to Michigan in the 2016 season. That loss was a narrow one, with the Wolverines winning 14-7. 

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Badgers Hangover: Season far from over for UW

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One look at the Twitter universe around the Badgers after Saturday’s loss to the BYU Cougars and it is easy to see Wisconsin’s season is over with.

The common refrain went something like this: 

But, the Twitterverse is often not indicative of reality. Such is the case with the all the doom and gloom surrounding the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers season. 

As one person on Twitter said in response to a Tweet we made, the season really isn’t lost. The path forward is more difficult, but there is history to show that winning a lot the rest of the season goes a long way towards repairing that one loss early on in the season. 

Another thing lost in all of this doom and gloom from around the social media world? BYU is pretty dang good. 

The Cougars have played three Power 5 opponents to start the season and are 2-1 — owning wins on the road against Arizona and Wisconsin. It’s loss to Cal was a narrow one and guess what? BYU happens to still have three more games against Power 5 opponents.

Up next for BYU is a date with McNeese State prior to a big one with Washington. Then there is a red-hot Boise State program and a season-ending date with Utah too — all three of them on the road no less. Those are major teams to compete against and potentially win against. 

Is it far-fetched to think the Cougars can’t win those games? Not after what we saw on Saturday inside Camp Randall. This is a program that is stout up front, assignment sure and has a quality run game. You can win a lot of games in college football with that formula…just ask the Badgers. 

How the Cougars play the rest of the season will only matter if the Badgers do their part and win out though. 

That begins with regrouping for a major rivalry game at Iowa on Saturday night. Winning that against a 3-0 Hawkeyes team sets up the Badgers for it’s first step towards national respect once again — controlling its own destiny in the Big Ten West division. 

Then there are big matchups with Michigan and Penn State to win as the season goes along. Get both of those games and Wisconsin is suddenly right back in the picture. 

Of course, all of this is speculation and if’s and but’s and wonderment. That’s what losing a game will do — make you speculate instead of controlling your own fate. 

Ultimately, the Badgers still have their main goals in front of them. Win the Big Ten West division. Play for and win a Big Ten championship and let the chips fall where they may for the College Football Playoff committee. 

Wisconsin still controls how those things could happen — even if Saturday’s loss felt like a familiar gut-punch to hype and hope for the Badgers faithful. 

It certainly isn’t time to jump off the bandwagon or abandon all hope. 

Saturday’s loss hurts, but if we are being honest, one loss doesn’t define a season like it used to in college football. Wisconsin’s reaction to that loss…well, that will define it’s season. 

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BYU stuns Badgers as non-conference play comes to an end

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All good streaks must come to an end.

Wisconsin had a 41-game home win streak in non-conference play coming in to Saturday’s contest with the BYU Cougars. It no longer has that streak as the Cougars bested the Badgers 24-21 at Camp Randall Stadium. 

The Cougars used a large part of Wisconsin’s game plan to beat the hosts — beating them in the trenches and racking up 191 yards on the ground in the win. 

Squally Canada needed just 11 carries to get 118 yards and two big touchdowns. His first score tied things up at 7-7 and his second took away another Badgers lead, scoring from two yards out early in the third quarter to make it 21-14. 

UW’s Heisman hopeful, Jonathan Taylor, was largely bottled up on the day. He ran the ball 26 times for just 117 yards and never got in to the end zone. Instead, it was senior Taiwan Deal pushing the ball over the goal line twice for the Badgers.

With the run game struggling, much of the hope turned to the pass game. Junior Alex Hornibrook didn’t respond well, completing 18 of 28 passes, but only gaining 190 yards. 

He also had a bad turnover, missing the underneath coverage on a huge third down play on the Badgers opening second half drive. 

Any momentum that the defense was able to gain was squandered over and over by the offense on the day. 

But, this one started off looking like the Badgers had found a way to spark itself early on — a problem that plagued them in the first two weeks of the season. 

Wisconsin got on the scoreboard first against BYU as running back Taiwan Deal capped off an 8-play, 63-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.

But, the lead was short-lived, as BYU answered right back on their next drive. Cougars running back Squally Canada capped off a 75-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown and it was 7-7 just 3:10 after the Badgers took the lead. 

BYU forced a 3-and-out by the Badgers on the next possession and then drove the ball right down the UW defense again. However, it was a trick play that put the Cougars up 14-7, as Aleva Hifo hit Moroni Laulu-Pututau on a wide receiver pass for 31 yards. 

Despite the struggles, the Badgers responded back with a late touchdown by fullback Alec Ingold to knot the score at 14-14 with 1:17 to go in the second quarter. 

After a three-and-out forced by the Wisconsin defense to open the second half, it appeared the typical quick start to the half was in order in Madison. 

That feeling didn’t last long though, as Alex Hornibrook threw an interception on the ensuing possession. It was returned to the Badgers 27-yard line and the defense needed to come up big. 

However, BYU took advantage of the miscue and punched in a short-yardage TD by Canada to make it 21-14 Cougars with 9:54 to play in third quarter.

Wisconsin tied things up two possessions later, as it went 10 plays and 82 yards for a touchdown. Deal got his second score of the game and it was 21-21 with 12:43 to play in the final stanza. 

The defense gave up a huge run to Canada on the ensuing drive, but held up after that and forced a 45-yard field goal to make the game 24-21 Cougars with 9:58 to play in the game. 

UW couldn’t get anything going on the next drive, eating over three minutes of clock in just five plays and were forced to punt. 

That gave the defense one last opportunity to make a stand, and they did exactly that. However, BYU’s punt bounced in front of Jack Dunn, who let it go and rolled inside the Badgers own 10-yard line. 

The ensuing drive saw Wisconsin attempt to take the clock down and get within scoring range at the same time. Instead of going for the touchdown and the outright victory, it appeared head coach Paul Chryst was content turning things over to his senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone. 

However, that strategy backfired as Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal attempt way wide left with just 35 seconds to play in the game. 

The senior was seen apologizing to his teammates for the uncharacteristic miss, but this loss was far from his fault.

Even if he would’ve made the field goal, overtime would’ve loomed large and anything could’ve happened at that point. 

Wisconsin will look to rebound next week as it opens Big Ten play against the rival Iowa Hawkeyes. Kick is scheduled for 7pm CT on ABC from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. 

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