Run and Shoot: Wisconsin at Illinois: Game Preview

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Wisconsin at Illinois: Game Preview

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. The unranked Illinois Fighting Illini (4-1 overall, 2-0 in Big Ten) enter their home contest against the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (5-0, 2-0) as--get this--2.5 point favorites.

Even the folks in Champaign, who are filling up Memorial Stadium for the first time in years, have a hard time believing that their team is favored against a powerhouse like Wisconsin. At an Oct. 2 media luncheon, Illinois Coach Ron Zook called the spread "ludicrous," adding, "I don't know how you can have a team (favored) that's been 2-10 the last two years playing the No. 5 team in the nation."

A valid point, but maybe the handicappers know what they're talking about. True, the Illini have a 2-30 Big Ten record over the last four seasons, but they have already matched that win total in 2007 with a 2-0 start. Illinois turned heads last week with a 27-20 victory against then-No. 19 Penn State, and it appears that Ron Zook has finally turned around a program six years removed from its last postseason.

Wisconsin arguably entered the 2007 season as the favorite to dethrone Ohio State in the Big Ten, and the Badgers have won fourteen straight dating back to last season. However, the Badgers looked sluggish in their first two Big Ten wins, squeaking out home victories against unspectacular conference opponents Iowa and Michigan St. by a combined seven points.

However, regardless of what Vegas says, make no mistake; if the Illini beat the Badgers, it will be an upset. Just maybe not a big one.

At stake for Wisconsin: The Badgers hope to extend the longest active winning streak in college football to fifteen games.

At stake for Illinois: With a win, the Fighting Illini would crack the Top 25 for the first time since 2001.

Battle of the Backs: Both squads feature dominant runners averaging over 120 yards per game this season. Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the year, will match up against Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, who's been picking up over 6 yards per carry.

Can the Badgers Prevent the Big Play?: The Badgers survived a big scare last Saturday, edging out Michigan St. 37-34, despite surrendering 564 yards to the Spartan offense. Five big plays were responsible for over 250 of those yards, which slices both ways. Maybe it's a caveat (a few extreme plays distorted an otherwise solid defensive effort) or maybe it's an exclamation point (the defense can't stop opposing teams from breaking big plays). Either way, Wisconsin's D has no desire to repeat their lackluster performance. To earn a key road win, the Badgers will need to quell the big play potential of Illinois's spread offense.

QB Controversy in Champaign?: Sophomore Juice Williams will start at QB today, but if he can't move the Illini offense, Ron Zook might well turn to redshirt Freshman Eddie McGee. Juice is a dynamic player with the power and speed to effectively run the ball, but McGee might have the passing accuracy and field vision that Williams has yet to show. The controversy started brewing during Illinois's season-opening loss to Missouri, when McGee led the Illini to a 34-point showing after replacing an injured Williams in the second quarter. Adding fuel to the fire, McGee replaced a struggling, but healthy, Williams in the second half of last week's victory over Penn State. Despite leading the Illini to four straight victories, Williams's job is by no means safe. This might be more than call-in show fodder.

Bowl Scout in the Press Box: A scout representing the Champs Sports Bowl and the Capital One Bowl, each of which include a Big Ten squad, is on hand to watch today's proceedings. Both teams will tell you that their eyes are on the Rose Bowl, but either team could end up in Florida when the calendar turns.

Wisconsin by the numbers:

5-0; 2-0 in Big Ten

Offense
412.4 Total Yards Per Game, 7th in Big 10
207.4 Passing Yards Per Game, 8th
205.0 Rushing Yards Per Game, 4th
32.2 Points Per Game, 6th

Individual Leaders
QB- Tyler Donovan (Sr.) 76-122, 1008 Yards, 9 TD, 3 INT
RB- P.J. Hill (So.) 139 Att, 667 Yards, 4.8 YPC, 9 TD
WR- Luke Swan (Sr.) 21 Rec, 384 Yards, 18.3 YPR, 2 TD

Defense
360.6 Total Yards Per Game, 8th
235.0 Passing Yards Per Game, 7th
125.6 Rushing Yards Per Game, 7th
22.4 Points Per Game, 9th

Illinois by the numbers:

4-1; 2-0 in Big Ten

Offense
413.0 Total Yards Per Game, 6th in Big Ten
157.4 Passing Yards Per Game, 11th
255.6 Rushing Yards Per Game, 1st
30.0 Points Per Game, 7th

Individual Leaders
QB- Juice Williams (So.), 55-103, 497 Yards, 4 TD, 5 INT
RB- Rashard Mendenhall (Jr.) 95 Att, 612 Yards, 6.4 YPC, 8 TD
WR- Arrelious Benn (Fr.) 24 Rec, 286 Yards, 11.9 YPR, 1 TD

Defense
338.2 Total Yards Per Game, 5th
242.8 Passing Yards Per Game, 9th
95.4 Rushing Yards Per Game, 4th
18.8 Points Per Game, 4th

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