Wisconsin rolls into struggling Illinois

first_imgThe Badgers hope to carry momentum from the exhilarating Purdue win and stay atop the Big Ten standings when they visit Illinois Saturday.Last week’s crucial victory over Purdue gave Wisconsin bowl eligibility and a higher BCS ranking, and kept the team at even pace with Penn State for first place in the conference.The defense especially wants to benefit from last week’s momentum-swinging game. Wisconsin’s improving defense forced five turnovers against Purdue, including two critical interceptions returned for touchdowns.Roderick Rodgers’ 84-yard interception return gave the Badgers the lead, pumped up the Badger faithful and inspired a struggling defense.”We rose up when we needed to and made some critical plays,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said.While pleased with the defensive performance against Purdue, Bielema stressed the importance of playing the same way against Illinois.”Now we have to focus and sustain on trying to keep our defense at that same level,” he said.While the Badgers try to capitalize on a stirring victory, Illinois simply aims to rebound from a demoralizing 63-10 defeat last week against Penn State. For Illinois fans, their homecoming game loss was especially hard to watch. The Nittany Lions routed the Illini, scoring 56 unanswered first-half points. Illinois’ abysmal season has been characterized by such losses, especially in Big Ten play.Although in the standings Illinois is the worst team in the Big Ten, no one on the Badgers is overlooking Saturday’s game.”One thing that we do preach is to play for four quarters,” head coach Barry Alvarez said. “And [our players] have played four quarters every ballgame.”With a win over Illinois, the Badgers would remain tied for first in the Big Ten with Penn State and maintain their BCS bowl prospects.One key to winning will be to improve the rushing defense. Despite losing many defensive starters from last year’s dominant defense, Bielema still believes in this year’s squad. However there is apprehension with starting young, inexperienced players.At times, the young defense has allowed an opposing offense to run without restraint — allowing 212 rushing yards to Purdue, 400 yards to Minnesota and over 300 rush yards against Northwestern.”We have been concerned with the [opponent’s] running game over the last few weeks,” Bielema said. “Anything that has hurt us in the past we have to be prepared for on Saturday. We played well last week but still gave up a lot of yardage.”The struggling rushing defense may be reprieved this week since the Illini are ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense.While there are certain concerns about the defense, the Badgers’ high-powered offense, led by Brian Calhoun, continues to shine. Calhoun is among the top rushers in the nation in yards per game and touchdowns.The Colorado transfer faces a porous Illini defense, which has allowed nearly 50 points per game (48.75) over its last four contests. In the same span, UW’s impressive offensive attack has averaged nearly 40 points per game (39.5). These statistics point to a high-scoring game for the Badgers.Surprisingly, Illinois leads the series with a 35-31-7 record against Wisconsin all-time. Illini head coach Ron Zook hopes to continue this winning historical trend with Illinois’ first win against UW in three years.Zook adds a new and unknown element to the rivalry since he has never coached against the Badgers. He is trying to turn a fledgling program around in Champaign-Urbana.”I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be successful,” Alvarez said. “They’re only a few years away from being in the Sugar Bowl. I think they’ve got a lot of good young players on their team. And Ron, he’s very positive. … He’s got a young team and he’s got to keep them positive and keep trying to improve.”While this is Zook’s first year in his current coaching position, Alvarez is in his last year. Alvarez knows first-hand the difficult, monumental task of rebuilding a football program.While Alvarez gives his best wishes to Zook, he surely does not want to preview Illinois’ prospective success on Saturday — not with a Big Ten championship at stake.last_img read more