We are halfway through the college football season. Let that soak in. Now dry your eyes and appreciate every second of Badger football that we have left.
The second half of the season starts this Saturday night as the No. 25 Wisconsin Badgers travel to face the Illinois Fighting Illini at 7:00 PM CST on the Big 10 Network, a rare home night game for the Illini. The Badgers are coming off a dismantling of the Northwestern Wildcats and the Illini are looking to rebound from a game at Nebraska where they got down early and never had a chance.
Wisconsin comes into the game averaging 37.2 points-per-game while also boasting one of the nation’s top defenses, allowing only 13.2 points-per-game. Illinois has been equally as solid on offense through the first half of the season with an average of 36 points-per-game. Although, Illinois’ opponents thus far have not been as difficult as what the Badgers have faced. The Illini’s defense has been shaky at best, allowing 27.6 points-per-game, and the Badgers will look to exploit them on the ground and through the air.
For the ground game Wisconsin will look to their standout sophomore Melvin Gordon, who has put up an insane 870 yards on only 90 carries. For the mathematically challenged that is 9.7 yards-per-carry, essentially a video game pace. Illinois will look to defend the run better this week than they did against Nebraska last week, as Ameer Abdullah ran for 225 yards and two scores, if they want to have a chance in this game. Gordon must be itching for kickoff.
As far as the passing game, the Badgers look almost exclusively toward Jared Abbrederis. Abbrederis is a senior and emotional leader who suffered a concussion last week. The former walk-on is expected to play this week but nothing has been made official as of yet. The Badgers are being cautious with Abbrederis and that is wise as he leads the team in receptions (35) and receiving touchdowns (5). Should the Badgers rush Abbrederis back and lose him to further injury their next best receiver has only 18 receptions and that would be running back James White. The third leading receiver on the team has only 12 receptions and is tight end Jacob Peterson. The second leading wide receiver on the team, in receptions, is Jordan Fredrick with only 8 receptions for 86 yards. Hard to believe that the Badgers are 4-2 with almost all of their receiving success coming from the one man every team game plans against. If anything else Abbrederis’ draft stock has risen significantly from this season so far, and will rise even more if he bounces back from this injury with another big game this coming Saturday.
Illinois does have a quality quarterback in senior Nathan Scheelhaase who can make plays and potentially create some problems for the Wisconsin defense. The Senior Scheelhaase has a better touchdown to interception ratio (12:4) than Badgers quarterback Joel Stave (11:6) although both quarterbacks have thrown for exactly 1297 yards on the year. The turnover battle will be important for the Badgers to win as they are on the road. Last week the Badgers committed two more turnovers than the Wildcats but still won in a rout at Camp Randall thanks in large part to their overwhelming defense. Wisconsin’s defense is led by senior linebacker Chris Borland and for fans that thought he couldn’t do anymore for this team, it was just reported that he will be handling long field goal attempts against the Illini. He already completed a pass for a first down on a fake punt earlier in the year. What can’t Borland do?
Wisconsin has already faced the biggest tests on its schedule whereas this game kicks off a brutal stretch for Illinois. Over the next five weeks the Illini face Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. That is a tough slate for a team that is already 0-1 in the Big 10. The Badgers find themselves at 2-1 in the Big 10 and this is step one of their quest at a 10 win regular season, which requires winning out.
If Gordon, Abbrederis and the Badger defense continues their pace from the first half of the season you might be seeing a lot of empty seats in Champaign come the fourth quarter on Saturday night. True freshman running back Corey Clement certainly hopes so, as he has racked up an impressive 353 yards and 4 touchdowns almost exclusively in mop-up duty this season.
Here’s to hoping we see a healthy dose of Clement on Saturday.