Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin
Date/Time/Place: Friday Oct. 23, 2020: 7 p.m. CST, Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.
Surface: Field Turf
Capacity: 50,805 (No fans allowed for Big Ten games in 2020)
Records: Illinois 0-0; 6-7 (4-5 in Big Ten) in 2019; Wisconsin 0-0; 10-4 (7-2 in Big Ten) in 2019
Line: Wisconsin by 19. The last time Illinois has pulled off the upset as a double-digit road underdog was the 2007 win at then-No. 1 Ohio State. The Illini have lost its last 19 games in this position.
Series notes: Wisconsin holds a 42-38-7 lead in series. Before the miraculous comeback win on Homecoming last season, Wisconsin had won nine in a row in the matchup and have won seven in a row in Madison dating back to 2002.
TV: BTN; Brandon Gaudin (PBP), James Laurinaitis (analyst) & Rick Pizzo (sidelines).
Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Martin O’Donnell (analysis) & Steve Kelly (Pre/HT/Post) » The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/ XM satellite radio & SiriusXM Internet and at FightingIllini.com.
Wisconsin running game vs. Illinois run defense
Lovie Smith understands, like everybody else on the planet, what the Wisconsin will always be about: running the football. Just because Jonathan Taylor, he of the 2,255 total yards and 26 touchdowns in 346 touches in a three-year career, has finally taken his act to the National Football League, doesn’t mean the Badgers rushing attack is without talent in the backfield. Garrett Groshek has mainly been used as a third-down back and the fact there is an ‘OR’ by his name in the Wisconsin depth chart for this opener suggests Nakia Watson, a redshirt sophomore who was a four-star prospect from Austin Texas, will get his chance Friday night to put his stamp on this Wisconsin running attack. The key to Wisconsin showing its reloaded its running game may be proving they can The big question is who will replace Tyler Biadasz, a three-year starter at center who left for the NFL. Kayden Lyles, a fourth-year junior who has yo-yo’d from defensive tackle to offensive line in his career, will be the guy responsible for not only all the line-of-scrimmage checks but also making a new starter and quarterback and tailback feel comfortable. The major problem for the Illinois is they’ll be debuting four new starters on its defensive line but will rely on the defensive tackles (Jamal Woods and Roderick Perry) to create havoc at the line-of-scrimmage and have the confidence of Lovie Smith.
Wisconsin passing game vs. Illinois pass defense
You might hear this often in 2020 but if Illinois’ inexperienced defensive line can’t get a consistent pass rush, it’ll be practically irrelevant how well they cover in the back seven. This week gives the Illini its first chance to turn that narrative around as they have the opportunity Friday night to rattle an inexperienced but highly-touted redshirt freshman quarterback. Graham Mertz, an Elite 11 selection out of high school two years ago, the 2018 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year selection and a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection as a senior who completed 61.1% of his passes for 3,886 yards and a state-record 51 touchdowns, will get his first collegiate start against a defensive coordinator who has 14 years of experience preparing NFL defenses (2001-2015). An interesting note will be how confident Illinois feels about putting their two cornerbacks on a one-on-one island against inexperienced Wisconsin receiving targets. Of course, Nate Hobbs is a four-year starter and team captain for a reason but will Wisconsin dare challenge the young duo of Marquez Beason and/or Devon Witherspoon because sometimes tells me that is what Illinois wants the young Mertz to do.
Illinois running game vs. Wisconsin run defense
It’s well-noted that Illinois lost its top three rushers (Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner) and 1,484 yards from last year’s rushing attack. However, Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith thinks the running game could be just as good and when evaluating Smith’s offensive philosophy, it better be because putting all the pressure on the quarterback in a drop-back passing game isn’t and has never been his style. The three-headed monster of Mike Epstein, Chase Brown and Jakari Norwood will likely each get their shot early to prove they can be effective but until the Illini establish a primary ball-carrier, this will be a major question mark. And if it is going to be Epstein, questions remain about whether the injury-plagued tailback can handle a 15-25 carry effort over a nine-game in nine weeks season.
Wisconsin’s 3-4 defensive front has usually relied on experience and elite level play from the second level at linebacker. This year it is all about the group up front as Wisconsin is loaded at defensive line with Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Matt Henningsen but the best player in the group might be 318-pound nose tackle Keeanu Benton. Illinois, which will bring the most experienced offensive line in the Big Ten in 2020, will need to figure out a way to move Benton and get to the linebackers in the run game to have any success.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
Illinois passing game vs. Wisconsin pass defense
Let’s first establish that Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, is one of the best in college football and the fact he doesn’t have a head coaching job has to be his choice and not one by athletics directors in desperate need of a solid coaching hire. He’ll have a plan for all these passing weapons in the Illini offense. This is the game where Brandon Peters can establish himself as a legit NFL prospect because he has six wide receivers with significant playing experience in college football, three tight ends he can trust in the pass game and an offensive line that returns four starters and got significantly better each and every week last season. The good news for Illinois is if they get behind, they’re set up to never be out of a football game as the Illini passing attack was 36 of 65 for 491 yards and three touchdowns when down by 8-14 points last season.
The Illini bring back two of the best kickers in All-Big Ten punter Blake Hayes and James McCourt, the man who with one swing of the leg famously knocked off No. 6 Wisconsin in Champaign last season. Mistakes are not usually part of the deal for the Illini special teams under Bob Ligashesky. Personally, I’m intrigued by Jakari Norwood being involved in the kick return game as a returner. and the Badgers have to replace their two biggest strengths: kickoff specialist Zach Hintze, who was practically an touchback machine, and returner Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers in the offseason. Wisconsin made field goals an adventure last season as placekicker Collin Larsh, who went 5-of-11 on field goals of 30 yards or more last season, returns for his junior season.
Despite not having a spring season and a truncated training camp due to the Big Ten offseason and coronavirus, Lovie Smith says this is the most prepared team he’s ever had going into a season opener. As nice as it was for Illini fans to see its team go back to a bowl last season, everybody associated with this Illinois program has been pointing to the 2020 campaign as the breakout season. There’s too much available talent on both sides of the ball to not have modest expectations and they enter a season opener KNOWING they can beat this opponent after having done it in dramatic fashion last season. However, Paul Chryst isn’t 52-16 in his five seasons with the Badgers by mere accident. All he’s done since taking over his hometown program is win 10, 11, 13, 8 and 10 games to turn Wisconsin into an instant Western Division favorite and a sneaky CFP qualifier candidate every season. Defeating the Badgers in Madison is a very tricky task and since 2016, only three head coaches have been able to figure out how to do it (Urban Meyer – Ohio State in 2016, Kalani Sitake – BYU in 2018, P.J. Fleck – Minnesota in 2018)
I want badly to pick the ultimate upset in the Big Ten football opener for the 2020 season but I just can’t do it. I’m thinking Illinois, with its potent passing attack inside a quiet Camp Randall Stadium, will make this a legitimate four-quarter game to pay attention to all evening. However, Jim Leonhard’s defenses don’t normally find themselves unprepared and Garrett Mertz was recruited for these exact moments. I’ll take the Badgers at home but the incorrect narrative coming out of Friday will be the Badgers aren’t national champion worthy after “struggling with Illinois” until we get further into the 2020 season to further evaluate how far forward this Illini program has come.
No. 14 Wisconsin 27, Illinois 21