The 15th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers need to win their final two games of the regular season to claim a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Conference Championship Game, and first up is this Saturday's road clash with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Wisconsin kept possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe for the eighth straight year as they had very little trouble disposing of the Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday, winning by a final score of 42-13. Wisconsin ranks among the top five in the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense this season, and the team is 17-2 in regular season games played after November 1 in head coach Bret Bielema's six years at the helm.
Bielema knows his team can't look past any opponent or do too much scoreboard watching at this point, "We have to concentrate on being in the moment. That's the way we will do it."
Illinois opened the season at 6-0, but has lost four straight, the most recent of which being last Saturday's 31-14 home setback to Michigan. Wisconsin is the third straight ranked opponent for the Illini, and the team is just 4-20 versus Top-25 foes under current head Ron Zook.
Illinois owns a narrow 36-34-7 lead in the all-time series with Wisconsin, but the Badgers won the most recent meeting (27-17) in Madison back in 2008.
Wisconsin RB Montee Ball ran for 166 yards and two TDs in last weekend's thrashing of Minnesota, giving him 27 scores for the year in establishing a new Big Ten single-season record. James White also had a solid day out of the backfield, rushing 14 times for 87 yards against the Golden Gophers, while QB Russell Wilson was nearly perfect in completing 16-of-17 passes for 178 yards and a season-high four TDs. WR Nick Toon caught eight balls for 100 yards and two scores.
In all, the Badgers piled up 461 yards of total offense, compared to a mere 156 for the Gophers. By controlling the ball, UW claimed a near 10-minute advantage in the time of possession battle. Mike Taylor led the Badger defense with 13 tackles, eight of which were solo efforts. The Gophers were held to a scant 51 passing yards and Wisconsin allowed just nine first downs, but came up with just one sack and only one turnover.
Wisconsin is averaging 45.2 points in Big Ten play this season, exactly what it averaged last year when it had the second-best scoring offense in league history. Furthermore, the team is averaging 7.48 yards per play, trailing only Houston (8.27) and Baylor (7.52) right now nationally. Last year, with the most prolific offense in school history, the Badgers averaged 6.7 yards per play. A year after leading the country and setting a school record with just nine turnovers, the Badgers are tied for the national lead with just six giveaways this season.
Ball leads the nation with 27 TDs and has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season. Wilson leads the nation in passing efficiency at 201.6, which would break the NCAA record currently held by Hawaii's Colt Brennan if the season ended now. He is also on pace to set NCAA marks in yards per pass attempt (11.1) and yards per play (9.9).
Defensively, the Badgers permit just 15.8 ppg on typical outputs of 134.1 ypg rushing and 146.3 ypg passing. They have given up just 18 TDs in 10 games, but have logged 22 sacks and come away with only 14 turnovers. Taylor and Chris Borland are both over 100 tackles for the season, with Borland notching 15 TFL -- more than twice that of Taylor who is his closest teammate.
Illinois generated just 214 yards of total offense in last week's loss to Michigan, with a mere 37 coming on 33 rushing attempts (1.1 ypc). QB Nathan Scheelhaase went 16-of-31 for 170 yards with no TDs and one INT, and the Illini lost a pair of fumbles. Scheelhaase was sacked four times, but when he was able to stay on his feet, he found WR A.J. Jenkins eight times for 103 yards -- his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season.
Scheelhaase was obviously disappointed with last week's outcome, "You don't really know what went wrong. Obviously, execution, errors and some penalties early on put us behind the chains, which you don't really want to do and unfortunately we did."
DB Tavon Wilson led the UI defense with 11 tackles, an INT and a fumble recovery, but Michigan churned out 223 yards and three TDs on ground, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Illinois came into the game as the Big Ten's top rushing defense (102.9 ypg). DL Whitney Mercilus notched another sack, giving him a national-best 12.5 for the season.
Through 10 games, Illinois is averaging 25.0 ppg while giving up 18.6 ppg. Scheelhaase has the passing game turning out 201.4 ypg, and he has completed 62.3 percent of his throws with 12 TDs and six INTs. Jenkins is far and away the team's top option down the field, having amassed 76 catches for 1,133 yards and seven scores. The UI run game boasts a pair of 500-yard rushers in Jason Ford (518 yards, seven TDs) and Scheelhaase (515 yards, six TDs).
Over on the defensive side of the ball, foes are averaging just 114.9 ypg on the ground against the Illini, and the unit as a whole has registered 32 sacks and 19 turnovers. Jonathan Brown leads the team in tackles with 78, among them being 14.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks.