CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema's first encounter against his old school went, well, rather badly.
Wisconsin dominated Illinois during a 24-0 win on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium in front of 40,168 fans.
The Illini homecoming crowd didn't have much to cheer for as Illinois sustained its first shutout since a 63-0 loss to Iowa on Nov. 17, 2018.
While Saturday's loss wasn't as lopsided on the scoreboard as the one three seasons ago against the Hawkeyes, it sure felt that way.
Illinois didn't even top 100 yards of total offense (93 to be precise). Played two quarterbacks, with both Art Sitkowski and Brandon Peters struggling mightily. Peters started and went 3 of 7 for 12 yards before leaving with an injury in the first half. Sitkowski missed on his first 13 pass attempts and finished 8 of 27 for 55 yards.
The Illini run game couldn't get going against the country's best run defense, with Wisconsin holding Illinois to only 26 yards on 13 carries. Chase Brown, last week's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after he rushed for 257 yards and two touchdowns during a 24-14 win against Charlotte, was held to 35 rushing yards on eight carries.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, did whatever it wanted to do on offense against Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten). Which was run the ball, run the ball again and then run the ball some more. The Badgers (2-3, 1-2) compiled 491 yards of offense, with 391 coming via the run game. Chez Mellusi (145 rushing yards on 21 carries) and Braelon Allen (131 rushing yards on 18 carries) both scored a rushing touchdown.
Illinois is off next Saturday, but the schedule doesn't get any easier when the Illini do return to the field. Fourth-ranked Penn State awaits for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 23 in University Park, Pa.
There's really nothing to say at this point. Wisconsin continues to run the ball effectively, with Braelon Allen adding a 23-yard touchdown run to the Badgers' total.
Illinois can't do anything offensively. Nothing at all.
I'm really having trouble wrapping my head around what Graham Mertz did last year against Illinois. The Wisconsin quarterback was one incompletion away from a perfect game and simply picked part the Illini defense.
Mertz has been a bit more effective than either Illinois quarterback today, but that's a seriously low bar. So Wisconsin has simply leaned on its ground game. It's worked.
Chez Melluis leads the Badgers with 19 carries for 114 yards and just punched in a 15-yard touchdown run (blasting through Illinois cornerback Tony Adams in the process). Braelon Allen has added 86 more yards on 13 carries.
Illinois has 33 total yards of offense heading into its first drive of the second half. Just as a reminder.
The team statistics so far are kind of wild.
Wisconsin has run 36 plays for 180 yards in 18 minutes, 53 seconds. The Badgers are 2 of 2 on fourth down and have a dozen first downs. Their latest drive (14 plays, 79 yards, 6:50 off the clock and a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback John Chernal) has them leading 10-0.
Meanwhile, Illinois has run 11 plays for 6 yards in 5:40 across three drives. The Illini's lone first down came on a pass interference call on the Wisconsin defense. Yikes.
The Illinois offense got first crack today. The Illini, fresh off a 257-yard rushing performance by Chase Brown last week, called three pass plays. Brandon Peters completed one ... for 5 yards. Hello, Blake Hayes.
Wisconsin went with what works. The Badgers ran the ball and then ran it some more. Illinois' bend-but-don't-break defense worked, though, as all Wisconsin managed was a 25-yard field goal by Collin Larsh to cap an 18-play drive that ran 9 minutes, 44 seconds off the clock,
Two key players (one each on offense and defense) aren't dressed for today's game. The Illinois offense will be without one of its top wide receivers, with Deuce Spann not dressed. Also not dressed is starting outside linebacker Seth Coleman.
The full list of unavailable players:
- LB Calvin Hart Jr.*
- WR Deuce Spann
- WR Ty Lindemann
- QB Samari Collier
- DB Dylan Thomas^
- RB Mike Epstein
- LB Dylan Rosiek
- OLB Ben Schultz
- TE Preston Engel
- OLB Seth Coleman
- LB Kalen Villanueva
- OL Jordyn Slaughter*
- WR Owen Hickey
- DT Calvin Avery
* - out for esason
^ - medical retirement
Illinois has had a it of an offensive line carousel this season. At least at the guard spots. A healthy Doug Kramer has been the stalwart in the middle at center. Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe have started every game at the tackle spots.
And Lowe just had one of his best games of the season in the win against Charlotte.
"V-Lowe played his best game on Saturday, taking care of everything he needed to in pass protection, getting a body on a body, really being physical up front in the run game," Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. "They really have no choice (but to run block) with what we’re doing, and they’re excited about it. You very rarely run into offensive linemen who don’t enjoy run blocking.
"Even though he’s a better pass protector, or was in the past, he’s very excited about how we’re run blocking, he’s doing a great job with it and I think he’s getting better just like all five of them are getting better every week."
The Illinois defense has been a fairly bright spot the past three weeks. Maybe the only one beyond what running backs Josh McCray and Chase Brown have done in the Illini run game.
There was certainly room for improvement for the Illinois defense after getting picked apart by UTSA and Virginia in back-to-back weeks. The Cavaliers dropped 42 points on the Illini in Charlottesville, Va., a month ago. Since? Illinois has become a little bit stingier.
Walters made some personnel changes. Adjusted his scheme, too. The Illinois defense as it stands might not be exactly what Walters had in mind, but he's running what fits this team.
"There’s a balancing act there," Walters said during Monday's press conference (the only one where he's available). "At the end of the day, it’s all about what the players can handle, what they’re best at. I have made my last tackle. I’m never going to put on pads again. It’s not necessarily what I want to do or what us as a staff would like to do or prefer. It’s what can your guys handle and what are they good at?
"I think that’s the beauty of coaching is you have to adjust to the players. It shouldn’t be the other way around, in my opinion. Obviously, you have certain philosophies that you hang your hat on in terms of what you play, the style of which you play. But in terms of schematics, I think it all depends on what your roster looks like.
"The willingness to make adjustments is the willingness to wanting to put your kids in the best position possible to be successful. That’s the ultimate goal. In order to win games, you’ve got to do what they can do and what they’re best at. We, as a staff, have done a good job throughout the course of the season of identifying that."
Good afternoon from Memorial Stadium. Storylines galore ahead of today's game between Illinois and Wisconsin. Let's run them down ...
- Bret Bielema spent nine seasons at Wisconsin and was in charge of the program for seven. He won three Big Ten championships with the Badgers. Now the Illinois coach, Bielema isn't super interested in framing this game as his new team playing his old team.
- A homecoming game against Wisconsin actually brings back fond memories for Illinois fans. Two years ago (not quite to the day), Illini kicker James McCourt drilled a 29-yard field goal to secure the upset victory. The field was stormed. McCourt wound up at the bottom of a pile of his teammates and almost blacked out for lack of oxygen.
- Let's just say that neither Illinois nor Wisconsin has put a wildly effective offense on the field yet this season. The Illini have at least run the ball well the last two games with Josh McCray and Chase Brown. The Badgers haven't even done that all that well.
Neither team has a quarterback worth mentioning. Brandon Peters has been inefficient after his return from injury for the Illini. Wisconsin's Graham Mertz had the best game of his career last year against Illinois and has done nothing to match his effort since.
So plenty of things to follow as the Illini and Badgers square off at Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin is probably more in need of a win than Illinois in the grand scheme of things, but the Illini are looking for more than just beating Charlotte last week. That's not what Bielema is here for.