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Big backs, big challenge

Illini know Wisconsin backfield will test defense

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 1:30 a.m. CDT
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(Andrew Nelles)
AP Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown makes a tackle against Cincinnati earlier this season. Brown is eager for the challenges that Wisconsin's offense will provide the Illini on Saturday.

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown says No. 25 Wisconsin's offense has it all.

Big offensive line, a pair of big-game backs and a passing game that can make a defense loosened up by the run game pay.

"As a linebacker, you dream of playing games like this in the Big Ten," said Brown, who grew up in SEC country in Memphis. "They might be one of the gold standards for running the ball in the country."

But when the Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) come to Illinois Saturday night, there are two things they'll be missing: a road win and first place in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. One of their losses was at division leader Ohio State.

"To be a good team and have any chance at all to talk to yourself at the end of the year about being a great team, you have to win on the road, and you've got to be able to find a way to get that done," first-year head coach Gary Andersen said. "It hasn't happened yet."

The Badgers' offense is a force. Melvin Gordon's 145 yards rushing a game is No. 3 in the country, and James White is ranked 28th with 95.7 a game. As a team, Wisconsin is running for 298.2 yards a game, fifth best in the country.

And quarterback Joel Stave's 216.2 passing yards a game quietly puts him at No. 4 in the Big Ten.

Brown is one of the country's better linebackers. His 60 tackles are tops in the conference. But he leads a defense that isn't very good at stopping what the Badger offense does best. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) gives up 195.4 yards a game on the ground. In the Big Ten, only Indiana is worse.

Five things to watch Saturday night at Memorial Stadium:

The lights are on: Illinois doesn't play many night games, and Andersen isn't crazy about them.

Illinois appears to like the idea of a 7 p.m. kickoff.

"The whole environment is more electric," Brown said.

New defense paying off: Andersen's 3-4 defense is a new look for Wisconsin, and it's giving the Badgers an edge.

Wisconsin is giving up just 13.2 points a game, best in the Big Ten and fifth in the country.

New Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit says Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who leads the team with 56 tackles, and the rest of the Badgers' defenders carry themselves like they expect to dominate.

Fifteen, and coutning? Illinois hasn't won in the Big Ten since October 2011, 15 straight losses.

The first six came on Ron Zook's watch and were a big part of the reason he was fired at the end of 2011. The eight straight conference losses last season – by an average of 23.4 points a game – fed enough angst in Champaign that athletic director Mike Thomas felt the need to tell fans that first-year head coach Tim Beckman would be back.

Wisconsin is a double-digit favorite, but games in Champaign aren't a given for the Badgers. Illinois has won two of the past five.

Comeback for Illini attack: The Illini offense is much stronger this season than last, averaging 457.2 yards and 36 points a game.

Badger defensive end Patrick Muldoon thinks Illinois' offense benefits from the 14 receivers senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has used.

Scheelhaase's 1,297 passing yards are just 64 short of his total for 2012, and his 12 touchdowns are triple last year's production.

Missing their kick: Badger kickers have made just five of nine field goal attempts this season.

Jack Russell, who has missed his only field goal attempt, should get a chance this week, Andersen said.

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