CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illinois football team played arguably its best quarter of the year last week in the third period against Michigan. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to overcome a massive 28-point deficit in a 42-25 loss to the Wolverines.
The loss was the fourth in a row after a 2-0 start, and things aren’t going to get any easier at 11 a.m. Saturday when No. 6 Wisconsin steamrolls into town led by running back Jonathan Taylor, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the nation’s top defense.
Illinois (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) has lost nine straight to the Badgers (6-0, 3-0), each by a double-digit margin.
“When you have a player like (Taylor), you can have guys in the right spot, but the great ones find a way to make you miss,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “We’ll need a lot of gang tackling. We’ll need to, of course, tackle a lot better than we have the previous games.”
Here’s what to watch for:
The Taylor problem
Taylor’s 14 rushing touchdowns lead the nation heading into the weekend, and he was third in the nation with 825 rushing yards. He was behind only Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State and J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State. In last year’s game in Madison, Wis., Taylor ran for 159 yards in a 49-20 win over the Illini.
As usual, Wisconsin has a powerful offensive line in front of Taylor, and will make difficult for the Illinois defense. Illinois ranks 106th in the country, allowing 201.8 rushing yards per game. Smith knows exactly what Wisconsin is going to do offensively: Run.
“He’s arguably the best player in college football,” Smith said. “He’s excellent running between the tackles, he has size, he can hit you with power, he’s faster than most people, he’s on their track team. You start off with that, a downhill runner. It seems like Wisconsin, they lost a lot of offensive linemen from last year’s team, but it seems like there’s another big guy who kind of goes in.
“Good scheme. It’s a good challenge. You have to be sound. You have to, first, like contact. We know what we’re going to see. It’s not going to be a finesse game this week. We’re going to need our big-boy pads on and that’s what we plan on putting on.”
Illinois safety Sydney Brown played against the Badgers last season, and is fully aware of their run-first attitude — and Taylor.
“He’s got great vision and great acceleration,” Brown said. “We’re all looking it as another opportunity to play a great team.”
Finding room against the defense
This well might be the biggest challenge facing Illinois on Saturday. The Badgers have four shutouts in six games, have scored four defensive touchdowns and recorded a safety. The 30 points Wisconsin is responsible for scoring on defense is more than the total points the defense has allowed all season (29).
The numbers get only more impressive. The Badgers rank first in the country in five defensive categories: Scoring defense (4.8 points per game), total defense (173.7 yards per game), rushing defense (44.7 yards per game), passing defense (129 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (75.4).
“I watch what they do,” Smith said. “They’re not, I wouldn’t say, re-inventing football or anything like that. They play hard together. Yeah, they have playmakers, but they’ve been good for a period of time. Just not defensively, of course, what they do to complement their defense on the offensive side — ball control.”
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith will be tasked with trying to get the running game going against a fierce Badgers defense. The Illini have generated less than 100 yards on the ground in each of the last two games.
“The numbers they are putting up are phenomenal,” Rod Smith said. “A great challenge ahead of us. I’m going to have to be consistent in my approach. I believe 100 percent in our system; 100 percent. I’ve never faulted from that. It’s all about execution from our standpoint.”
Who is the quarterback?
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters missed last week’s game because of a concussion after starting the Illini’s first five of the season. In Peters’ place, redshirt freshman Matt Robinson stepped in and played well. But that doesn’t mean Lovie Smith and Rod Smith have a decision to make.
“Brandon Peters is our starting quarterback,” Lovie Smith reiterated. “Our backup quarterback played well for parts of the last game, but when our starting quarterback is ready to go, he’ll go.”
Lovie Smith hasn’t given an update on Peters’ availability, and that information likely won’t be out until just before kickoff. Freshman Isaiah Williams (Trinity) played a few snaps, but left the game with an injury.
Building on that third quarter
After trailing 28-7 against Michigan at halftime, Illinois put together one of its best quarters of the year in the third. It held the Wolverines to 11 yards and just two first downs, picked up seven first downs of its own and accounted for 114 yards.
The Illini scored 10 points in the quarter and pulled within three points of the Wolverines early in the fourth. Lovie Smith wants to see more of that kind of play in the team’s final six games of the year.
“We’re trying to really ball up what we did during the (third quarter),” he said. “That’s the same team. That’s the team we can be as we go forward. If we show up like that in the second half of the football season, we’re going to be celebrating a lot of victories.”