So as fate and scheduling would have it, the Badgers play the Fighting But Never Existed Indigenous Peoples in Shampoo-Banana (Champaign-Urbana) at 11 am on Saturday, while the Packers host the Bears on Sunday night. So it's the State of Wisconsin v. the State of Illinois all weekend. As a born and raised Wisconsinite, but currently a guilty resident of the Chiccy-G (those Chicagoland women are tempting vixens!), this has me especially nervous.
First off, the Badgers, although so far undefeated, are struggling. They edged a banged up Iowa team, and let a somewhat talented Sparty make their defense look like warm brie. And they're injured and shallow at key positions. Hubbard is out for at least a few more weeks, Andy Crooks has played one snap all season, Lance can't play road games, Jackie I. has missed two entire games with various ailments, Jefferson was recently concussed, the linebackers are gimpy, and the d-line is as shallow as a kiddie pool. (Anyone seen Kurt Ware on the field lately?)
Yes, yes, they've gutted out victories. And Sparty may have been the most talented offensive opponent Wisconsin has played to date, but the problem is, Illinois may be even better talent-wise. Benn was one of the top wideout recruits in the country and, after enrolling early, is playing like it. Rashard Mendenhall was the top running back in Illinois his senior year of high school, and has been excellent this season. Juice Williams, the Illini's QB, is going through a bit of a sophomore slump-- he's still an effective runner, and has a strong arm, but his accuracy is up and down, even with Benn running routes. Illinois runs a version of the shotgun spread, also used by the Indianapolis Dolts, UNLV, and the Citadel. They run out of that formation most of the time, but throw in a lot of bells and whistles. Unfortunately, the Badgers have struggled (hell, they've struggled against everyone except Iowa) against this type of offense this season.
Illinois also has a tough, fast defense, led by graduate student/linebacker J Lehman (shortening your first name to a letter is, for the record, retarded), and Vernon Davis's little brother, Vontae, an excellent corner. That defense injured PJ last season, if you'll recall. I don't think their D is up to Iowa's level, but it's not that far behind. Plus, this will be the Badgers' first tough road game of the season. No, playing in front of a half pro-Bucky crowd in Vegas doesn't count.
Given all this info, it's not surprising that a fun post in a chat room already claimed that the Badgers are the underdog against Illinois according to the sports books, even though Wisco is ranked 5th and the "Looks like University of Illinois!" football team is still "receiving votes." The Communist Times seconds that info. That seems deserving given the way the two teams have been playing. But that's only if you view Penn State as a good team. Besides that close victory at home, Illinois lost to Missouri (currently ranked #17) in a close game, and beat the 'Cuse, Directional Illinois, and Indiana.
I do think the Badgers can win this game, and I'm not convinced they should be the underdog. Illinois' running game is good, but Williams is not a scary passer. The Badgers should stick Jack on Benn, and otherwise focus on stopping the run--forcing Williams to beat them. (He actually got pulled against Penn State last week.) The offense shouldn't be hard to figure out--runs up the middle and options with Mendenhall, end arounds and wide receiver screens to Benn, and occasional play-action passes. Call it a 70% run, 30% pass mix. It's an easy way to let athletic, non-braniac guys do some damage. Hopefully, UW can figure it out, and shut it down.
On defense, Illinois will be pretty tough. However, I don't think they have anyone who can match-up with Beckum, and the offensive line should be able to open up holes. The Badgers won't have Lance, but it's not like they were giving him the ball that often anyway. (Which is too bad, since he's quite good.) PJ stays intact, and Donovan holds onto the ball-- the Badgers have a good shot at the victory.
I'll hold off on discussing the Bears game until Chicago's injury report becomes clearer. If Vasher, Tillman and Briggs are still out, that could change things significantly.