Badger running game poses a tall order for Illini defense

The Wisconsin football team has lost two games by a combination of seven points and a head-scratching 18 seconds.

A seven-point Badgers loss was the closest anyone has come to toppling undefeated Ohio State. A chaotic 18-second sequence — during which quarterback Joel Stave seemingly set the football on the ground for the taking — punctuated (with a question mark) a two-point loss to Arizona State.

And now the Badgers make their way to Champaign to take on an Illinois team under the Memorial Stadium lights. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) is coming off a 35-6 pounding of Northwestern. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) is coming off a bye week following a 39-19 thrashing at the hands of Nebraska.

The No. 25-ranked Badgers pose another tall order for a struggling Illini defense. Wisconsin comes in boasting the Big Ten’s best offense (519.5 yards per game) and best rushing attack (267.3 yards per game), led by sophomore Melvin Gordon.

Gordon leads the Big Ten and ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game at 145. He has a lot of help from the big guys up front. Wisconsin is known for having a perpetually large offensive line, and this year is no exception.

The Badgers starters on the offensive line average 319.2 pounds. In comparison, the Illini average 308 pounds per starter.

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman didn’t have any other way to put it.

“Big, extremely big. And physical,” he said of the Badgers offensive line. “Our players understand that. They understood that they were a little bit manhandled in Lincoln.”

An Illinois defense that surrendered 335 rushing yards to Nebraska in its last game will have its hands full. Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown knows there will be no surprises from this Wisconsin attack.

“What you see is what you’re going to get,” Brown said. “One thing they do well, they do a good job of sticking to the game plan and wearing teams out throughout the game.”

That’s exactly what the Badgers did to the Illini in 2012. Illinois trailed Wisconsin 10-7 going into the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium last season, but the Badgers wore the Illini down and eventually Illinois made mistakes. Wisconsin won 31-14, handing Illinois its second Big Ten loss.

If the Illini want to avoid a second Big Ten loss in 2013, they will have to be able to get something going offensively, something that didn’t happen against Nebraska until it was too late.

Badgers linebacker Chris Borland will have something to say about that.

“I love watching him,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “I hate to say it because we’re facing them, but that guy plays college football the way it’s should be played.”

Between Borland and Brown, Saturday’s matchup features two of the best linebackers in the nation. Borland has 56 tackles through six games. Brown has 60 through five. Both were named to the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player) and the Butkus Award (best linebacker).

“As a linebacker you dream of playing games like this in the Big Ten,” Brown said. “It’s going to show who’s the toughest team.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.