Despite Badger’s slump, Illini hold composure

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Daniel Johnson

Illinois was a firsthand witness two weeks ago to a Big Ten team on the rise. Minnesota’s win over the Illini may not have been a monumental shock, but it was a surprise nevertheless.

And this week, heading to Madison, Wis., Illinois will be a witness to the opposite end of the Big Ten spectrum.

After climbing to the No. 8 spot in both polls after week three, the Badgers have plummeted to unranked and forgotten, with an aggregate record of 3-4, after losing all four of its Big Ten games to date.

What might have been one of Illinois’ likeliest losses at the beginning of the season has turned into a very winnable game, maybe even expected by some, because of the Illini offensive outbreak.

“He’s in the top in the Big Ten,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said of Juice Williams in his Monday press conference. “They’ve been able to have some very impressive numbers, both throwing the football and running the football. They got a couple running backs back there with the introduction of a freshman this past week, Jason Ford, who we also recruited. We know a lot about him. And then obviously, the talented wide receiver, not just Benn but other guys that have been able to be productive for them this year.”

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Unlike the Illini, who have had the good fortune of health, the Badgers have been decimated by injuries, namely to their running back P.J. Hill who has been slowed by an aggravated left leg injury, one that may limit or even exclude the junior from any playing time Saturday.

For the players and coaches, this Saturday will be very comparable to the game that was played last year against Iowa.

Throughout the week, head coach Ron Zook and his players predictably kept their confidence in check, trying not to give away too much of their game plan or provide any bulletin board material for Wisconsin.

“It’s very similar (to Iowa), but what it comes down to is that it’s a whole different team, a whole different set of circumstance,” defensive end Will Davis said. “Camp Randall, it’s a tough place to play up there. They haven’t been doing well, and they’re looking to turn their season around, which can happen at any time.”

Zook elaborated.

“We learned last year when you go to a Big Ten stadium and you play against a team that is back in a corner a little bit, you better have everything going as well as you can have it going,” he said. “Last year (against Wisconsin), it was the most physical game I’ve been involved in a number of years.”

Furthering the Illini apprehension about the game is the fact that, in the players’ eyes, Wisconsin had an opportunity to win all of the games it has lost, including a very good chance against the now-No. 9 Buckeyes.

“It’s a little surprising to see Wisconsin where they’re at, but it’s funny because it’s not like they’ve been beaten by teams that aren’t any good,” linebacker Brit Miller said.

“They had Ohio State down until the last minute when Ohio State made their drive. Unfortunately for Wisconsin right now, they’re on the losing end, we’ve been there, I’ve been there.”

Momentum will undoubtedly be on the side of the Illini this week, after coming off of the highest-scoring game during Zook’s tenure at Illinois and the Badgers’ demoralizing 38-16 loss to the Hawkeyes.

Even after the Illini’s most lopsided victory of the year, the team was still self-effacing and cognizant of the fact that it still has a lot to prove.

“We only have four wins, so we have to make some things happen this weekend for ourselves as well,” Miller said. “The one thing (I remember most from two years ago) is that we had E.B. Halsey wide open over the middle and Juice just over threw him. It just goes to show you how the game can be.”