Beat writer Matt Daniels looks at three key players for each squad.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, QB
Scheelhaase won’t get intimidated by whatever Wisconsin throws at him. The fifth-year senior is about to start his 42nd career game, only three away from breaking Juice Williams’ mark for most career starts by an Illinois quarterback. But he knows he needs to play better than he did two weeks ago at Nebraska for Illinois to possibly pull off an upset Saturday night and garner additional confidence heading into the final month of the season.
“That’s the great thing about playing in a conference like we’re in,” he said. “You get the chance to prove yourself. We’ve got to step up in the big games and get over the hump. That’s the beauty of it. You get opportunities to really prove what you’re all about.”
MASON MONHEIM, LB
The sophomore is usually around the ball. But he is coming off a four-tackle performance against Nebraska. Those numbers don’t live up to the standards Monheim has for himself and were the fewest number of tackles the durable starter had made since he finished with four tackles at Arizona State in the second game of last season. Monheim has had his share of missed tackles this season, an area he needs to improve upon.
“I know when I miss a tackle, it haunts me in my sleep, whether it’s a key tackle or just a small tackle,” Monheim said. “J Leman said it best: ‘You can’t live in the glory of a good play or the regret of a bad play.’ That’s really what I try to do. You can’t focus on the last play. You just focus on the play you’re doing now. “
Melvin Gordon and James White will break through the Illinois defensive line. Probably on multiple occasions. Jonathan Brown can’t make all the tackles. Monheim will have to play assignment-sound football, wrap up and finish his tackles.
“Wisconsin’s been the same team in the past few years,” Monheim said. “They want to win the battle up front, and they want to run the ball. We know that, and it’s going to be our job to stop that. We have to play on their line of scrimmage. We have to make them make adjustments.”
ILLINOIS DEFENSIVE LINE
It’s not just Tim Kynard. Or Houston Bates. Or Austin Teitsma. Or Jake Howe. The entire starting defensive line, along with the reserves that should play like Robbie Bain, Teko Powell and Abe Cajuste, have to play their best game of the season. If not, fans will exit Memorial Stadium with plenty of time left in the game and students will get their night on Green Street started earlier. It’s not just pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, either. Teitsma and Howe have to play more physical against an already-physical offensive line if Illinois hopes to contain Melvin Gordon and James White. The four sacks Illinois has generated this year aren’t impressive. In fact, it’s the fewest in the country by any FBS team.
“We just have to go back to the fundamentals, getting off on the snap a little bit faster and working on our power and swim moves,” Teitsma said. “(Nebraska) had a very tough (offensive) line. More props to them. Those guys were fantastic; real athletic and real big. It’s just something we’re going to have to learn from and move on.”
MELVIN GORDON, RB
Fast. Dynamic. Shifty. Powerful. All those adjectives, and probably a few more, are tossed around when discussing the sophomore sensation.
He is third in the country in rushing yards (870) and is averaging an Adrian Peterson-like 9.7 yards per carry. Which is actually down from last year, when he averaged 10 yards a carry en route to 621 yards. Slacker. Kidding on that previous note.
It seems almost a lock Gordon will surpass 1,000 yards on the season against a suspect Illinois defense. It will mark the ninth straight season Wisconsin has had at least 1,000 yards. That has to make Barry Alvarez smile to see his foundation of solid running backs continue under Gary Andersen.
“He’s extremely good,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “He was kind of in the shadows last year of a very good running back (in Montee Ball). He progresses as he goes through games because he is young, but he’s got great bursts and speed, and he’s got good size to him, too.”
JOEL STAVE, QB
Wisconsin quarterbacks never have to worry about throwing the ball 50 times in order to get a win. Stave won’t just hand the ball off all night, though. The Badgers relied on Stave’s arm to keep them in the game at Ohio State. The sophomore is susceptible to interceptions, having thrown six on the season, but he’s not a game manager, either. The second-most accurate passer in the Big Ten behind Nathan Scheelhaase has a solid offensive line protecting him. He should have ample time to snap off passes, but if Illinois can force him out of the pocket, it would help.
“That’s how they get the offense going with the run game, but he’s a guy that can definitely keep the chains moving with his accuracy,” Brown said. “He is an underrated passer. I’ve seen him stand tall in the pocket and throw the ball, so it’s definitely something we’ve got to be aware of as well.”
CHRIS BORLAND, LB
The leader of the Badgers’ defense was a popular figure at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. Makes sense. He’s a superb player with a good personality. Every media type’s dream scenario. He hasn’t let all the accolades and attention affect his play this season. In fact, he is on pace for perhaps the best season of his standout career. He is currently tied for eighth all time in Wisconsin history for most tackles and could vault into seventh if he gets 14 stops against the Illini.
“He’s a great asset to use in their blitzes,” Beckman said.
Borland is adept at causing fumbles. He enters today with 13 career forced fumbles, most among active players and most in Badgers history. He only needs two more to own the all-time FBS record. Running back Donovonn Young knows Illinois will be facing one of the better linebackers in the country.
“He has a good motor,” Young said. “He always runs to the ball and is always around the play. This is the best story I heard about him. Last year he jumped over Jon Davis on a play, was walking back to the huddle, winked at him and told him, ‘Y’all better not run that play again.’ He’s a pretty good football player.”