Illinois football welcomes Wisconsin for Homecoming game, seeks second straight win

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Lanie Hibel

Coach Bret Bielema looks out onto the football field as a play was being made on Oct 2 against Charlotte. The homecoming game on Saturday shall be interesting as Bielema has worked for Wisconsin before.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois football will host Wisconsin in its Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium this Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Illinois heads into the game sitting at 2-4 fresh off a 24-14 win over Charlotte that ended a four-game losing streak. Wisconsin is 1-3 on the season, but all three losses have come against top-20 opponents. Last season, Illinois got blown out by Wisconsin, 45-7, so there will be a lot of ground to make up if the Illini want a chance.

“As far as Wisconsin, obviously a team that has, them and Northwestern have shared the Big Ten title the last five years,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Either one of those two programs has run the Big Ten West. Had this game on the forefront of our guys’ minds just because of who it is.”

This game will be an interesting one personally for Bielema, as he served as the head coach at Wisconsin during a wildly successful stint from 2006-2012 before leaving for Arkansas.

“I know I’ll get the question (about my past at Wisconsin), but this game is about the University of Illinois football versus the University of Wisconsin football,” Bielema said. “That’s what it’s about. That’s what has been driven. My preparation for any game is the exact same.”

Wisconsin currently ranks as the best defense in the Big Ten and the third-best defense nationally, as the Badgers allow just a measly 249.05 yards per game. Particularly concerning for Illinois will be Wisconsin’s defense against the run, as it allows 45.3 yards per game.

Metal will meet strength on the ground, as Illinois’ offense is centered around the ground game. Chase Brown lit up Charlotte for 257 rushing yards last week, while Josh McCray had 156 rushing yards the week before against Purdue, so Illinois has a couple backs that could detonate for big games.

“Statistics are great,” Bielema said. “They’re great frames of reference, but a lot of times there’s a lot of outside factors that roll into it. (Wisconsin is) very stout. They’re great against the run, but, obviously, we’ve been able to have success running the football with a couple different ball carriers. But, the key ingredient is what works on Saturday. There’s only going to be two opponents in that stadium.”

Wisconsin also has an elite passing defense, so a struggling Brandon Peters will have a tall task in front of him if he is to have a big day.

Wisconsin’s offense ranks similarly to Illinois’, as it has been effective on the ground but struggled in the passing game. Quarterback Graham Mertz has had a rocky season so far and has just two passing touchdowns and six interceptions so far. The Badgers’ running game has primarily featured junior Chez Mellusi, who leads the team by a wide margin with 332 yards on 75 attempts.

Traditionally, the Illini would wear their famous grey ghost uniforms for Homecoming in honor of Illinois football player Red Grange, but Bielema has opted to make a symbolic change to start his tenure.

“Obviously, a tremendous amount of respect for the grey ghost and who he is and what he stood for and what he represents,” Bielema said. “I would say the one thing I’ve carried forward in every game this year is the orange helmet. I think in today’s world, the ability to identify an identity with a football team is very important. That’s why our orange helmets have been a constant and will be a constant for us moving forward.”

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