Illini to rely on defense for another Badger upset

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Photo Courtesy of David Craan/Fighting Illini Athletics

Linebacker Jake Hansen smiles while holding the ball during football practice on Oct. 15.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

A year ago, Wisconsin came into Champaign as 31-point favorites against a reeling Illinois team. Sixty minutes of game time later, and the Illini pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten history, stunning the Badgers 24-23. Flash-forward a year and pundits have a similar prediction. 

Despite being Lovie Smith’s most talented team, Illinois enters Friday’s rematch as a 23.5-point underdog, renewing talks of disrespect from around the country. 

“If you look at their schedule from last year, I think they beat one team by 23 points,” senior linebacker Jake Hansen said. “It didn’t really make sense to me. I figured we would be substantial underdogs, but I didn’t think it would be (a) 23, 24 point area.”

The task of upsetting Wisconsin is steep. The Badgers enter this season as the division favorite to take on Ohio State. The game is taking place in Madison, and the Badgers return one of the best defenses in the country.  However, one of Wisconsin’s built-in advantages — a sold out crowd — will be absent due to COVID-19. 

“If you’re going to ask me would I rather have 90,000 Badger fans there or no Badger fans there, I’m going to pick no Badger fans at any time,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “If anything, I think it has to be an advantage for the visiting team when you go into a hostile environment.”

The Badgers’ home-field advantage has been decreased significantly, but that means it comes down to which team executes better. 

Last season, the direction of Illinois’ program going into their homecoming bout against Wisconsin was trending down from an outside perspective. 

Sitting at 2-4, the Illini suffered from an identity crisis after four straight setbacks, including a loss at home to Eastern Michigan; the defense was getting gashed by offense through the air and ground. 

So when the Badgers came rolling into Champaign, few had faith that Lovie’s defense could hold Jonathan Taylor and company in check. But three Wisconsin turnovers later and Illini snatched a victory away from their division rival. The blueprint may not be different this season.

“The defense has to take the ball away,” Smith said. “You can’t rely on turnovers. We practice it, we preach it, we live it. The turnover ratio determines the outcome of the game. 

“Every game I’ve gone into, you start off with a minimum of three takeaways a game. That’s the barometer you use.”

While the Badgers are known for their run-heavy, conservative offense, the Illini were able to force Wisconsin into mistakes last season, including a late Jonathan Taylor fumble in the fourth quarter. And for the season opener, the Illini will get to go against redshirt freshman Graham Mertz under center, who’s making his first career start in place of injured senior Jack Coan. 

“Wisconsin is always going to have a big rushing attack, so you can expect them to ease the quarterback into it with some easier throws and rollouts,” Hansen said. “But it’s his first career start. We don’t have a ton of tape on him. We’ve been watching his Hudl highlights.” 

Mertz is not a nobody, however. Ranked as the No. 1 quarterback in his class, Mertz is a 6-foot-3-inches pocket passer who can keep defenses honest with his arm. Having attempted only 10 passes last season, though, making his first start against a Lovie Smith defense could prove to be challenging, especially if Hansen and company can stuff the running game. 

But can the Illini score 20-plus points? It’ll be tough against the Badgers, who return nine defensive players from one the best defenses in the nation last season, so having a balanced attack is vital.

“We’re going to have to run the ball,” senior quarterback Brandon Peters said. “(Wisconsin) is really good in (stopping) the run game, using people from the safety position, from the nickel (to) get more guys in the box. For us, we are going to try to manipulate those guys.” 

The Illini do have a gap to fill in the running game after losing Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown to graduation. But this opens up the opportunity for Mike Epstein to take a bigger role in the offense, as long as he stays healthy. Epstein only had eight carries in the season opener last season before missing the rest of the season. When healthy, though, Epstein has accumulated over 800 rushing yards. 

But the X-factor of the game is Brandon Peters, who finished last season’s game with only nine completions but two big touchdown passes. 

Last season, Peters came into the year as the new guy, having only arrived in Champaign weeks before their game against Akron, and he was production, finishing with 21 total touchdowns. Along with additions in the passing game — Luke Ford and Casey Washington — Peters will be surrounded with the most talent he’s had since leaving Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

“I think last year, he was searching for answers,” offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “Now he understands the offense. He knows where people want to be. I just think he’s more comfortable. I feel much better because it’s the first time I’ve had a second-year quarterback at Illinois.”

Peters showcased a sneaky ability to pick up yards on the ground, giving defenses another thing to worry about. Most of his rushing yards, however, came from improvisation.

In Wisconsin’s showdown with Oregon in the Rose Bowl last season, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert finished with three rushing touchdowns in their 28-27 win over the Badgers. Herbert, who has a big frame, caught Wisconsin off guard at times when the passing game was bottled. Will Peters try to replicate the Oregon blueprint for another Wisconsin upset? 

“I guess we’ll see,” Peters said.

 

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