Badger Football Preview: Illinois and Bret Bielema come to town

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

By: Joey Bonadonna

On Saturday, the Wisconsin Badgers return home to Madison to kick off Big Ten West play against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Badgers are coming off of a loss after falling at the hands of the #3 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus, by a score of 52-21, heading into this matchup with a 2-2 overall record. The Illini most recently topped the Chattanooga Mocs of the FCS ranks in shutout fashion, 31-0, coming in with a 3-1 record.

After last week’s loss at Ohio State, Wisconsin finds themselves in familiar territory to last year. The 2021 Badgers came into Week 5 against Illinois with a 1-3 record, needing a win in a huge way. They were able to accomplish just that, beginning a streak of seven consecutive victories. This year’s Illinois game carries a similar amount of weight and Wisconsin is in desperate need of their first conference and Power Five victory.

Wisconsin has dominated in the matchup recently with Illinois, winning fifteen of the last seventeen, including last year’s contest by a score of 24-0 in Champaign. In that game, then-freshman running back Braelon Allen made his first career start in high fashion, rushing for 131 yards and one touchdown on eighteen attempts. The Illini’s last win over the Badgers came back in 2019 in a shocking outcome in Champaign. Their last win in Madison was in 2002 (fun fact, that was before this writer was born).

Both squads enter Saturday with top-five rushing offenses in the Big Ten, with Wisconsin ranking at #4 with 211.8 yards per game and Illinois at #5 with 209.0 yards per game. Illinois junior running back Chase Brown is currently the nation’s leading rusher with 604 rushing yards, while Allen is a few spots behind him at fifth with 497.

Saturday also marks the homecoming for former UW head coach, Bret Bielema, who is in his second season with the Illini after he took over for Lovie Smith last season. Bielema coached six seasons with the Badgers, compiling a 68-24 record and three consecutive Big Ten championships from 2010-12, before accepting the head coaching job at Arkansas. He spent five seasons with the Razorbacks, only putting up a 29-34 record. After bouncing around several professional assistant coaching positions, he has returned to the Big Ten and now will coach his first game at Camp Randall since November 2012.

Illinois provides a unique challenge for the Badgers, especially the defensive unit, who was shredded last week by Ohio State’s uber-talented offense. Along with a torrid running game led by Brown, fifth-year senior starting quarterback Tommy DeVito, who was a transfer from Syracuse, has had plenty of experience and has had a good start to his time in Champaign. He is one of eleven quarterbacks in the nation to have thrown multiple touchdown passes in every game so far this season.

The Badgers’ defense, which the team has relied on heavily to win games over the years, will need to improve their numbers, especially in getting after the quarterback. Wisconsin is second-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks with just seven on the seven. Illinois’ offensive line, however, has also had a tough time protecting DeVito, giving up the second most sacks in the Big Ten with nine. Look for the pass rush to try to establish itself in this game outside of Nick Herbig, who already has four sacks this season (2nd in Big Ten, t-11th in the nation).

Wisconsin’s new-look offense has shown great flashes under new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram, as they are in the top half of points scored per game in the Big Ten. However, going up against an Illinois defense that has had a solid start to the season, junior quarterback Graham Mertz will still have to prove himself as a consistent passer on Saturday. In 2022, Mertz has shown signs of improvement from last season but has also looked extremely shaky at times while adapting to the new offense. The last time he faced this Illinois team in Madison was in 2020, his first career start, where he threw five touchdown passes and one incomplete pass (a drop), exceeding all expectations set for him at the time. Since that night, he has yet to have a performance of that magnitude. Watch for the matchup between Mertz and Illinois’ passing defense, led by Jartavius Martin, Devon Witherspoon and Kendall Smith.

The Badgers and Illini kick off on Saturday at 11AM from Camp Randall Stadium, with television coverage on the Big Ten Network. WSUM Sports will also be on the call with coverage available on 91.7 FM WSUM in the Madison area and on the station’s sports stream online at wsum.org.