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Badgers run game a huge advantage against Illinois

Wisconsin’s run game has dominated this season, can that continue against against a youthful Illinois defense?

There’s no secret to Wisconsin’s offensive success in 2017. It’s pretty much been pound the rock, hit a play-action pass, throw one up to Quintez Cephus — rinse and repeat.

So far no one has really been able to stop Wisconsin from having success with that formula.

Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing offense (256.8 yards per game) and is 16th nationally in rushing offense. The Badgers are also averaging a healthy 48.8 rushing attempts per game — part of which comes with killing off large leads in the second half of games.

A large (pun intended) part of the Badgers success has been a group of veteran offensive lineman coming in to their own.

It is something Illinois head coach Lovie Smith immediately recognizes about UW’s offense heading in to the game on Saturday.

“It starts up front with Wisconsin’s offensive line,” said Smith at his weekly press conference. “They’re big, athletic, knee-benders and play hard. It’ll be a big challenge for our guys as one of the best offensive lines we’ve played so far.”

Wisconsin has dealt with a myriad of injuries to the offensive line, but it hasn’t mattered much. Depth has returned after a few lean years and it has made a big difference.

So far UW has had to start multiple players at both guard positions and continues to rotate there to keep players healthy. Even left tackle Michael Dieter has been hit by the injury bug, albeit a much smaller version. Redshirt freshman Cole Van Lanen has filled in well in Dieter’s absence.

It’s a far cry from when Chryst took over in 2015, when the Badgers offensive line was as thin as it has been since Barry Alvarez first took over in 1990.

As good as the offensive line has been, so has true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. He’s elevated UW’s rushing attack to heights it hasn’t seen since Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement were in the same backfield.

“Taylor is one of the best in the country,” Smith said. “He’s a true freshman and is playing outstanding ball.”

Taylor enters this weekend with 1,112 yards rushing, which is tops in the Big Ten and third nationally. He’s second amongst true running backs to Stanford’s Bryce Love. Additionally, Taylor has 11 rushing touchdowns, a total tied for seventh nationally through just seven games for the Badgers.

It isn’t just about the Badgers success though, as Illinois has had some major defensive growing pains this season under defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson.

Some of it could be expected, as the Illini have started at least six different true freshmen this season. It has led to a defense that is giving up a Big Ten-worst 210.7 yards per game and 13 touchdowns already this season.

UW doesn’t take the run game lightly, which means a huge advantage heading in to a homecoming affair with Illinois in Champaign.

But, can the Badgers actually take advantage of that discrepancy on paper and apply it to the field?

Wisconsin’s recent history against Illinois isn’t all that great. In two of the last three years Wisconsin has had less than 175 yards rushing as a team.

Last season was the high-water mark for recent history though, as Wisconsin put up 363 yards on the ground as a team.

If that is the trend under Lovie Smith, the Badgers could be in for a big day on the ground come Saturday afternoon in Champaign.

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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