Vulnerability sets the stage for Illinois football this week

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  • Illinois' Mason Monheim (43) tackles Western Kentucky's Leon Allen (33) during the game against Western Kentucky at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 6.

By Charlotte Carroll

A first Big Ten victory of the season is on the line this Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin have failed to win a conference game this year and both are looking to redeem themselves after last week.

Illinois (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) looks to forget a disappointing home loss to Purdue and move forward with a win against Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1). The Badgers dropped a 20-14 game at Northwestern and dropped out of the top 25 for the first time this season.

“I haven’t talked one thing about effort because our players play hard. They really do play hard, now we have got to play smarter,” Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said. “We’re excited about being able to play Wisconsin. We’re 3-3 at the midway point, we have six opportunities left and we’re taking Wisconsin first.”

Saturday will be a test of endurance and willpower as the Illini cope with losing their Big Ten-leading quarterback Wes Lunt to a fractured fibula. Lunt, is expected to be out four to six weeks for his injury.

The Illini hope senior Reilly O’Toole or even sophomore Aaron Bailey can fill the gap against the Badgers.

While Illinois adjusts its starting quarterback, Wisconsin will be trying to answer its own quarterback question.

The Badgers listed both juniors Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave as starting quarterbacks on their depth chart for Illinois. Both played in the team’s loss to Northwestern last weekend. The pair went 12-for-29 with four interceptions and only one touchdown.

While both might play in the pocket, the Illinois defense will be presented with a tougher challenge in Wisconsin’s run game.

Facing a Badgers rushing offense that leads the Big Ten and is third in the FBS, the Illini look to move past the poor play that has kept them at the bottom of the conference in rushing and overall defense.

“That’s our Achilles’ heel,” Beckman said. “We haven’t stopped the run the last two weeks, or really the whole season. We’ve got to stop a really good running back.”

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon carries most of the Badgers rushing load. He leads the FBS and the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (174.2) and rush yards per carry (8.14).

“I don’t think he has very many flaws,” linebacker Mason Monheim said. “He’s a great back. With that, he has a great line in front of him, a great offense. So we’re looking forward to showcase what we bring to the table against him and the whole Wisconsin team.”

For the Illini, this week is about moving beyond Lunt’s injury and the widespread criticism of the coaches.

Monheim and others, however, have expressed confidence in the coaching staff and are looking to execute the game plan to avoid falling even further behind.

“I think we’re at a very vulnerable position as to where our direction of the team could be,” Monheim said. “But I strongly believe in the group of guys we have, the seniors, the leaders and in myself that we’re not going to turn away. We’ll be fine.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @charlottecrrll.