UI-Wisconsin: Keys to the game

UI-Wisconsin: Keys to the game

Matt Daniels’ four keys for Illinois today:


Crowd control. It’s the first night home game for Illinois against a Big Ten team in five years (Indiana). A 55-13 triumph versus the Hoosiers happened in 2008. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is hoping for an enthusiastic throng of fans who will have had all day to get amped up tailgating. Plus plenty of orange as Illinois attempts an Orange Out in Memorial Stadium. Nothing better than to get an early lead on the Badgers. The same held true two years ago in Ron Zook’s last game in Champaign, with Illinois leading 17-7 at halftime before Russell Wilson, Montee Ball & Co. pulled away in the second half. “You try to start fast,” Beckman said. “When they’re playing a team like Wisconsin that’s been to the Rose Bowl the last three years ... there’s no question we’d like to feed off the crowd and have the crowd involved in the football game and be our 12th man.” Pretty standard stuff. Same goes for how the halftime score could indicate if Illinois enjoys a victory tonight. All three of Illinois’ wins this season have come when it leads at halftime. Both losses came with Illinois trailing. “I know how amazing that atmosphere was (against Arizona State),” wide receiver Steve Hull said. “We came out to a relatively hot start in that game. For us to come out flat would really deter a lot of fans and definitely put us in a funk as well. Starting off right is crucial in any game, but especially this night game with the venue and the setup that we have going on with the Orange Out.” 


Running in place. Nothing would make Illinois fans, coaches and players happier than limiting Melvin Gordon and James White. To fewer than 200 rushing yards. Combined. Good luck with that. A consistent solid push by the defensive line is needed along with better tackling out of the linebackers and secondary. Again, good luck with that. Getting Wisconsin stagnant on offense and creating some third-down situations where the Badgers will have to pass is crucial. Illinois is in the middle of the country when it comes to stopping teams on third down, allowing teams to convert 39 percent of the time, which ranks 64th. Illinois tried some different alignments against Nebraska in creating more pressure by having more linebackers on the field. The speed from that group isn’t breathtaking, but Jonathan Brown is a force. “We haven’t gotten to utilize that third-down dime package as much as we’d like to,” Beckman said. “That’s about getting (teams) in medium- to third-and-long a little bit more.” Strong safety Earnest Thomas said containing the Big Ten’s best offense, which Wisconsin has, comes down to group tackling and getting to the ball fast. Areas Illinois hasn’t exactly thrived in at times this season. “Playing against a team like this, you know that Wisconsin loves to run the ball,” Thomas said. “That’s what they do. They’re going to give us different looks and different sets. We’ve got to play as a unit. That’s what this game comes down to.” 


Open season. This isn’t referring to orange hunting vests, although Beckman wants to see all the orange he can in the Memorial Stadium stands tonight. More like the Illinois wide receivers getting open. In the two losses, that hasn’t exactly happened. At least on a consistent basis. When teams play man coverage against Illinois, Bill Cubit’s offense has struggled. Expect the Badgers to play Ryan Lankford, Miles Osei, Martize Barr and others straight up for most of the game. This will not only test whether Lankford & Co. can shake free of their defender, but also how well the Illinois offensive line holds up since more blitzes can happen if Wisconsin stifles Illinois in man coverage. Plus, Lankford is coming off the first game since his sophomore season where he didn’t catch a pass. “He’s got to take on a role where ‘I’ve got to be the guy,’ ” Cubit said. “We’ve got to get Ryan to play at a higher level. I’ve got to do a better job of getting him in some spots, but that’s the challenge. We’ve got to get that kid going.” Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has relied heavily at times this season on Lankford, who has the most receiving yards (236) by any Illinois receiver. “He’s made a ton of plays for us, and we want him to be able to make plays in every game,” Scheelhaase said. “There were opportunities where I probably could have put him in better positions, and I think he can say the same for me. It’s something we’ve got to improve on and do a better job of because he’s a big threat for us. We’ve got to utilize him.”


Blitz pickup. Nebraska overwhelmed Illinois at times when it had multiple defenders going full bore at Scheelhaase. It’s a safe bet the Wisconsin coaches have analyzed enough film of that game to throw more blitzes at Illinois tonight. It’s not a question of if but when the Badgers do this. Wisconsin coaches weren’t afraid to scheme up different blitzes against Northwestern and didn’t lose any sleep this week in fine-tuning these aggressive playcalls once more. “There’s a couple where we missed protection (against Nebraska) by backs, so Nate’s expecting it to be picked up and all of a sudden it wasn’t,” Cubit said. “There were a couple other ones where they brought one more than we had. We’ve got to change the protection or he’s going to have to get rid of it a little bit quicker. That was where we got beat.” Illinois has given up 13 sacks this season, ninth most in the Big Ten, but Illinois has played one fewer game than every other league school. And the burden of keeping Scheelhaase off the ground doesn’t rest solely with the offensive line. “The offensive line has been really good,” Cubit said. “They’ve only given up four sacks, and we’re pretty hard on them. The wide receivers got a sack (against Nebraska) because they didn’t get open. I gave myself a sack two weeks ago. Our backs have given up five, and they’ve got to do a little better job than that.”